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.



Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.



Forgotten novel – Headless Angel by Vicki Baum

A British news story, this week, reminded me of a novel that at one time was high up on my list of favourites for re-reading.  Somehow, over the last few years my copy has moved up my bookshelves and out of my eye-line, but evidently not out of my consciousness.

baum, vickiHeadless Angel is a romantic adventure that begins in Weimar and moves to Mexico.  It could have been a sentimental mess, like so many of the other cheaply bound novels I borrowed off my grandfather’s shelf as a teenager.  Instead it has a feisty heroine whose narration begins:

Now that September is blue and hazy upon the land, I like to walk up to my grave in the early afternoon and remain there until in the slanting sun the shadow of my tombstone grows long and lean and begins licking the hem of my skirt.

I can still remember the fascination of that first line.  What was this going to be, this plain boarded novel?

If ever I want to discuss what a narrative hook is, here’s a great example.  The pacing of this novel is exemplary.  Vicki Baum was a writer who knew how to intersperse action with description with back-story.

The Prologue is an exercise in lures.  Here’s the voice of an old woman, ‘in the good company of my memories’ who is supposed dead.

But what a life it must have been.  Who is this Albert, who has made a tomb for her and writes songs and poems about her?  Does he know who she is?  Why and how did she cross the Cordillera and live in ‘the wild mountain fastnesses of New Spain’?

Secrets are implied in the contrast between Albert’s reverence for classical art, and Clarinda’s pleasure in earthly satisfactions of simple food and views.  Promises are implied in the juxtapositions of Clarinda’s observations:

In a small way my grave has become one of the sight-seeing places near Weimar, and quite often travelers round out with a visit to Helgenhausen their pilgrimage to the sacred sites where Goethe and Schiller lived.

And how clever is the connection she makes?  It tells me that these are not false promises, she has mixed with interesting people.  Look how comfortable she is with Goethe, telling us that he slept in one of the bedrooms ‘a few times’, carved his initials on a tree, and drank water from the spring, using a tin cup.

Should we trust the word of a woman who is believed to be dead?

…the tin cup from which Goethe is said to have drunk the spring water…is an open fraud, for Goethe was here for the last time in 1818, much too careful and ailing an old gentleman to drink of the questionable liquid; and no doubt Babette has furtively replaced the old tin cup with a new one at regular intervals in the twenty-two years since.

Ah, so she’s willing to reveal the secrets, the truth behind the illusions.  That alone would make for an interesting read.  But the icing on the writing for me is summed up in the description she gives of the angel that Albert had carved and placed beside her grave:

It is a rather attractive angel, gracefully lifting a torch skyward in one hand while pouring with the other a flood of stiffly arrested marble tears from a marble urn down upon the little mound; unfortunately, my pretty angel has lost its head.  Poor Albert assures me that the resemblance of its face to mine was truly remarkable.  However, during the stormy days of 1806, after the Battle of Jena, when Wiemar was ransacked by Napoleon’s soldiers, a platoon of them bivouacked in our yard, used the angel’s face as a target in a friendly contest of marksmanship, and blew it to pieces.

That’s my kind of humour.  I’m already thinking up an excuse to cover settling back down with my old friend Clarinda…

Baum, viki


Looking for a quick smile?

logo4%20copyCheck out today’s post on Paragraph Planet, The Barrister.

This lovely piece of concise writing is by way of a boast, since Martin attends my writing classes, so I feel I can garner some reflected glory.

Paragraph Planet is a lovely challenge.  Why don’t you give it a go, too?

Martin has also been published on the letter project.

Watch this space for more.

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.

A cracking literate yarn sets me thinking

I’ve just finished novel three of Philip Pulman’s Sally Lockhart stories.  Roller-coaster rides, all of them.

the RubyInTheSmokeLovely period detail and a feisty female lead character, who doesn’t wait around to get rescued, or fall into hysterics so that she can show-case other characters.  Okay, so in Edwardian England she’s slightly improbable, but this is a thriller, and that’s the way they work.  Outlandish conspiracies, truly wicked villains and lots of violence are requisites.

This is the sort of stuff I love, and have loved for decades. I think I started with Enid Blyton’s ‘Five’ books.

The only thing I can’t quite decide with the Sally books, is what age-group they’re aimed at.  By which I certainly don’t mean to say it should have a restricted readership, any more than Pulman’s, Dark Materials trilogy should (if you haven’t you should – and you need to read all three to get the full effect).

The ruby -sally-lockhart-mystery-collection-philip-pullman-4-books-[3]-30312-pThe thing is, I keep seeing Sally Lockhart referred to as written for children.  I’m not sure if that’s just because in the first book Sally is sixteen years old.  I’ve seen reviews that compare the books to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, but the only similarity I see is that both series are, to use an old phrase, ‘action-packed’.  So are the James Bond books.  I worked my way through all of them when I was sixteen or seventeen.

I’m not saying that a twelve-year old wouldn’t enjoy the Sally Stories, rather that it seems a shame these books seem to have been marketed as suitable for children.  There are books that are definitely children’s, and that’s how it should be.

Content-wise though, I’m not sure if there’s an issue when it comes to these.  I know that children read adult books, but how much adult content is allowable in stories for children?

While not explicit, in book two, there is a sex-scene.  By book three, Sally is in her early twenties, and thinking as an adult.  Shouldn’t this then come under the Young Adult (YA) category?  I wonder where most bookshops and libraries shelve it.

The%20Ruby%20in%20the%20Smoke%20Jacket%20CoverNow that publicity is such a large part of the writing process, I suppose labels are vital.  And writers shouldn’t complain too loudly, after all, with so many books getting published each one must work hard to sell itself, and on the other side of that argument, it means the odds for any of us to get in print must be improving.

So I also wonder what each of these book covers suggests to you about the content.  Is it the book we judge by the cover, or the person reading it?

I’d like to recommend, Rumer Godden

I chose this novel because it was slim, and bright yellow, not because I recognised the author.  I wanted something on a completely different track to the local author’s we’d been studying in the reading group.  Good as they were, I would need something different to unwind with.  Breakfast with the Nickolides looked exotic. breakfast-with-the-nikolides

I didn’t read the blurb on the back.  At some point I’d put this on my shelf, therefore, someone or something had suggested that it was worth reading.

It is.  Godden was a stylist.  Her writing, apparently simple and straightforward, is deftly organized.  Here’s the opening scene:

It was in the little agricultural town of Amorra, East Bengal, India.

In the night Emily Pool’s small black spaniel, Don, slipped down the stairs.  He ran into the garden and out through the gate into the College grounds where the lawns lay smoothly between the buildings and the trees and ended in grass beside the tank.  He ran with curious intentness, his head down, his wide ears brushing either side of his hot serious face, and very soon his ears were soaked with dew and stuck with twigs and ends of grass.

He was hot.  He lay down and panted; but in a moment, pricked with some intense discomfort, he was up to run again, round and round without any point or reason.  There was nothing he wanted, but he could not be still, he could not feel or behave like himself at all.

How easily my eye slipped down the page, the images building in my imagination.  The location is set in a sentence, but what is the significance of Emily Pool’s black spaniel?  Who is Emily Pool, and since we have her full name, why no description?  Why is the first short chapter (a bare page and a half long) focused on her dog, Don, and his odd behaviour?

In chapter two we get the first of the human characters introduced smoothly, with just enough back-story to give context.  Charles Pool, the man who set up the Government Farm at Amorra, with ‘its colonnaded buildings, it’s straight well-sanded roads with railings that led through model fields’, has a mission to modernize the traditional agriculture of India.  It’s through his achievements that we see countryside and its people as well as himself and his lifestyle.

Only Charles Pool knew how big it really was; he knew exactly, because he had made it.  He had pushed it out and across the plain, patch after patch, crop after crop; and it had not been easy…in eight years the Farm had become an Industrial and Research Centre, with an annual exhibition; it had a Stud Farm and a Veterinary Research Anex…and three hundred students who came from all parts of the province to study livestock, crop-husbandry, bacteriology, agricultural botany, mycology and entomology.

The essence of normality is conveyed even as the plot shifts forward, and we, and his neighbours discover that Charles has a secret.

One morning Charles went down to the jetty to meet the steamer; and on the steamer was his wife, and not only his wife – there were two children of perhaps eleven and eight.

This is the point where the careful process of revelations begin.

Where had this family come from?  It appeared that they had been driven out of Paris by the war, and escaped by Lisbon to the Canaries, where they had taken a ship round the Cape to Colombo, and another from Colombo to Calcutta

So that’s one question answered, but perhaps it’s not the whole explanation for where this family came from.  It leaves us with more questions, such as, ‘What were they doing there?’ and, ‘Why have they come back after eight years without Charles mentioning them?’

Mysteries, the small, domestic intricacies of marriage, the cultural chasms of that time and place, are revealed slowly, one layer at a time.  Don’t expect a comfortable read.  This is a novel of subtleties.  Godden didn’t take any easy ways out with this story, though there were plenty of opportunities when she could have.

There is violence at the heart of the story, but it’s implied, and arguably the more powerful for that.  This is an understated novel.  At one point, as I was reading it, I found myself wondering if it couldn’t have been reduced to a short story.  Only in the hours after I’d finished reading, when my subconscious was still processing the implications, did I realize that it could only have been a novel.  Changing one word might have spoiled the carefully drawn and balanced parallels.

This, I think, is writing to aspire to.




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.

Is there a lexicon for fiction?

Tell me truly, how often, when you’re reading for pleasure do you reach for the dictionary?

DSCF5175Okay, so there are some writers who delight in stretching us, and in the past, fiction often seems to have been intended to ‘improve’ us. I am, of course, talking about the long-distant past here, when a lot of literature was intended to be read aloud to a mixed audience who may or may not have had the chance to go to school. Fiction then was all too often not just about fun.  I’ve ploughed through plenty of heavy old books and stories whose primary function seemed to have been to act as a vehicle for carrying heavy moral messages, and improve my mind and my manners.

Which isn’t to say that all old books are wordy.  I could send you back through the centuries of prose to some lovely lucid writings.

From the beginnings of literature, many of the best writers have studied their predecessors and thought and written about the art and craft of writing.  They learned not just about how stories could be structured, but how the content worked, or didn’t work.

That’s a bit of a side-track though, because we all know that fashion changes our vocabulary.  So in most older stories we will find ourselves reaching for the dictionary where contemporary readers wouldn’t have.  If I have to reach for the dictionary regularly on a contemporary read, I soon lose the feel of the story. I can’t get fully involved in a story if I’m constantly confused by what’s being said.

For me, the cleverest writers are not the ones who like to demonstrate the range of their vocabulary.  Clear language, artfully employed, that’s my measure of good writing.  George Orwell summed it up quite neatly. He said, ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’  By which I take it to mean, that we should never let our words get in the way of our story.

So here’s a piece of advice to anyone who might be struggling with feelings of lexical inadequacy, while you’re worrying about all the words you don’t know, you’re not writing.  Use the ones you do know, as precisely, as adventurously, as engagingly as you can, and you can’t go far wrong.

Besides, so long as we continue to read carefully, we will keep discovering not so much new words, as new ways to use our old words.  The beauty of being a reading writer, is that it’s an endless voyage of discovery.  There’s always a new book waiting to be opened, and we’re always waiting for it, so don’t hold back, get started writing…now.

Are you thinking of writing something for Halloween?


Detail from 'The pit and The pendulum', by Arthur Rackham

Detail from ‘The pit and The pendulum’, by Arthur Rackham

In my early teens I went through a craze for reading ghost stories by torch light under the bed covers, long after the rest of the family had fallen asleep.  I don’t remember much about those short stories now, what I remember is the effect of them, and how when I was alone in the house, or baby-sitting on dark nights, the atmosphere of them would creep up on me until I had to rush for light switches.  Then, even after I had closed the curtains and checked the locks, how I would be straining not to hear the noises you only notice when you are alone.

The stories that I have not forgotten are two of the older ones,The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs and The Amorous Ghost, by Enid Bagnold.  What’s interesting about them, from the writing point of view, is how little ‘ghosting’ they actually contain.

Take, The Monkey’s Paw.  Strictly speaking, this is as much horror as ghost, but it’s often anthologised in ghost collections, so who am I to be picky?  What I’m interested in is why this 1902 story has endured.  Rereading it I’m always surprised by the events described.  It turns out to be, largely, a domestic story.

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

There are few graphic descriptions of the supernatural to make our flesh creep.  Here, instead, is a character study.  The horror evolves naturally when the dynamics of a close family are tested.

Jacobs opens with the classic, ‘dark and stormy night’.  That’s a tricky one to carry off successfully, but he does it economically, neatly demonstrating what is meant by show don’t tell.

After that, tension is raised gradually.  We are not left room to disbelieve, but the characters are:

“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”

There are no coincidences in this story.  Every event builds on from the previous one, apparently naturally.  From the moment the three wishes are mentioned, our sense of the inevitability of their journey towards darkness is established.  One wish leads to another, despite the warnings about interfering with fate, and despite the examples of what happened to the previous owners who ignored them.

This is good story telling.  Dialogue and description, action and report are interwoven so neatly that the story races along.  My mind shouts no, don’t, but they do, and I turn the page, and then another.  And the real horror?  It’s not in the writing at all, its in my mind.

The ending is the final touch of genius with this story.  I dare you to read it and not be affected.

On the other hand (no pun intended), once you begin to look at how the structure works, doesn’t it make you feel that it might be fun to try and write one for Halloween?  There should just be time to come up with something suitable for a candle-lit reading.