Edited by Malcolm Bradbury
448 pages, Penguin
Review by Pat Black
Here’s a challenge; how to keep this review short?
Thirty-four tales by some of the biggest names in post-war British literature. Post-modernist in flavour, with pinches of social realism, sniffy upper-middle-class domestic dramas, the kitchen sink and the avant garde. Go:
We start with two tough customers: “Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession” by Malcolm Lowry and “Ping” by Samuel Beckett. Lowry’s is concerned with the permanence of writing, following a man’s meandering journey through his own fragmentary notes on the physical things great poets and writers left behind.
It’s dense but far more readable than Beckett’s notoriously difficult “Ping”. The white limbs, the restriction, the repeated eponymous sound; is this person dead? Manacled? Laid out on a hospital bed maybe, with the “ping” denoting their heartbeat on a monitor? Truly, no one knows.
“Mysterious Kor” by Elizabeth Bowen keeps things ineffable, as a wartime girl and her home-on-leave soldier beau go a-wandering through Luftwaffe-menaced London. Her man has moved into the flat she shares with another lass; the exigencies of the war and the social strictures of the time mean that the two girls must share a bed, while the man bivouacs in the lounge. Between them, the paper-thin walls carry through all conversations. There are strange intimacies to be found here, transcending mere questions of sex and propriety, befitting the invisible-ink fantasy world Bowen so subtly paints for us in the background – Mysterious Kor.
That wasn’t short, was it? I fear I may fail this assignment.
Next, VS Pritchett’s “A Family Man”, and a major theme of the collection emerges; family life being disrupted, marriages turned into loveless prisons, and the furtive efforts people employ to escape them. The main character is visited at her flat by a furious, frumpy woman who turns out to be the wife of the man she’s having an affair with. In the course of a cat-and-mouse game of distraction, she deflects the scorned woman’s suspicions with one ruse after another, but ultimately glimpses the true emptiness of her life. But only for a moment.
If “A Family Man” seeks to pull a few loose threads out of the institution of family and marriage, a salamander-eyed Dylan Thomas arrives next to set fire to the whole thing with “The Burning Baby”, a demented slice of Welsh country life involving a deranged parson, his sexy daughter and his imbecile son. In the ensuing mayhem, Thomas strikes the same note as The Joker in The Dark Knight: everything burns.
I’m ashamed to say that Graham Greene’s “The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen” is the first piece of short fiction I’ve read by him. It’s a lovely vignette looking at a man, his self-absorbed author girlfriend and the gentlemen in the title. It’s the kind of thing Greene might have drafted in the space of an hour, you might think, but it’s a lovely piece of work. And it provides another example of this collection’s major themes – literature, the act of creating it, and its place in our lives.
Angus Wilson’s “More Friend Than Lodger” looks at marriage and social conventions again. Here, a publisher’s wife narrates the events surrounding the arrival in her marital home of a lodger, a louche, Byronic cuckoo, a star-in-the-making on the literary scene. We look at the ways in which the wife – and one or two others - allows herself to be seduced by this creature. But where does the wickedness truly lie in this story? Not everywhere, surely...
In Jean Rhys’s “The Lotus”, a writer and his wife allow the crazy old lady down the stairs to enter their home for a few drinks and a listen to some records. The wife is hostile towards this woman’s presence, her faded glamour and incipient dementia; the husband is kinder, but only a little. His good nature is put to the test when the old lady’s cries for attention reach a rather desperate crescendo.
William Golding takes on another desperate old bat in “Miss Pulkinhorn”, in which an elderly busybody seeks to interfere with the ravings of a more obvious lunatic in a church, before a stained glass image of Abraham.
This was good, but not as good as Kingsley Amis’ “My Enemy’s Enemy”, a fearless examination of class through the prism of bloodless military manoeuvres during the Allied invasion of Europe. Here, a signals man – a good soldier, but irreverent and disrespectful of military protocol and discipline – draws the ire of some senior officers. An ill-at-ease junior officer is given to understand that the signals operator will be subject to an on-the-spot inspection, after a single warning. If his kit isn’t up to scratch, the signals man – an Italian, too! – will be punished and moved on. Oh yes – and if the junior officer passes on this information to the signals man, he’s for the high jump, too. I was most stirred by this story’s open examination of the pure prejudice and slander that class distinctions entail, and by a belting final paragraph.
Ted Hughes’ “The Rain Horse” is a painterly piece, with a young artist tramping through the countryside during heavy rain, looking for inspiration – and finding it in a deranged horse, which charges at him. This was like a monster movie, with its unpredictable force of nature intruding on the human character’s aesthetic impulses and trampling his impractical daydreams.
Alan Sillitoe’s desperately sad “The Fishing Boat Picture” was another story of marriage under bombardment, as a book-loving postman takes up with a sneering harridan for a loveless marriage. Years after walking out, the wife comes back; the kindly narrator wants to give her the fishing boat picture that’s been on their wall, a symbol of their better days. This picture’s fate – its multiple fates – is another metaphor for a dead, childless marriage.
Really, is this the best the British can do? Dead and childless marriages, simmering nuptial resentment? Am I being naive? It’s an ugly view of love.
An even more chilling matrimonial lesson comes from Doris Lessing, with “To Room Nineteen”. Room Nineteen is in a hotel which the story’s main character - a tired, confused wife who breaks an awesome taboo by rejecting her role in life - retreats to in order for simple peace and solitude for a few hours a day. It reminds me of Laura Brown’s act of rebellion in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, but Lessing is a superior writer and the wife’s abdication of responsibility is a far scarier prospect.
Muriel Spark is on a par, though. The Dame’s “The House of a Famous Poet” is a wartime story, again set during the London Blitz, where a chance meeting on a train leads to the narrator taking a room in the titular house. Spark enjoys playing wee games with this one. Fortunately, we enjoy playing along. The story is an examination of how we use that which we might mourn as a prop for our art. Or, in the words of another famous poet: “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief. All kill their inspiration, and sing about their grief.”
John Fowles’ detective story, “The Enigma”, has the tone of a crime report in a local newspaper, a sober, methodical account of what happens when a country squire and Conservative MP vanishes off the face of the earth one day. Fowles skilfully creates a complete picture of the missing man without us ever meeting him; even more impressively, he sidelines the search as a plotline once the story’s detective hooks up with an intriguing girl who might hold the key to the whole affair. Cherchez la femme, indeed. The story looks at how, in the quests of our own lives, we seek to reconstruct those of others to suit our purposes, either as police, witnesses, readers or writers. It’s not as pseudy as I’m making it sounds, though – and it’s as gripping as any police procedural pageturner.
“Memories of the Space Age” sees JG Ballard on familiar post-apocalyptic form as a man and his wife seek to counter a disease brought to us from outer space which causes our perception of time to slow to an almost complete stop. This gives us some jolly fun images in a battered landscape almost devoid of people, including a scene where a leopard leaps at our fugue-prone protagonist in instalments, a spectacular real-life flip-book animation. Martin Amis once said that Ballard wrote “the creamiest prose”, no matter what his genre, and there’s plenty of, er, Ballard’s cream to go around here.
William Trevor’s “A Meeting In Middle Age” looked at sexual incompatibility and more general social dysfunction, with a sour former society dame (we might call her a “socialite” today) meeting up with an unmarried bachelor for a tryst in a hotel. But sex seems like warfare in this story, and I was bruised by the hostility between these bedfellows. There’s something missing, you see.
“In The Hours of Darkness” by Edna O’Brien looks at a woman bidding farewell to her son as he embarks on university life at Cambridge. The mother tries hard to find solace in the adventure of moving house with her son, but it’s a desolate experience for her – and even the smallest irritations in life seem to work against her. Anyone who’s ever seen Jack Rosenthal’s play Eskimo Day will recognise many of the themes tackled here.
“A Few Selected Sentences” by BS Johnson sees us back on experimental form – so I’ll experiment with brevity by skipping over it for the editor’s contribution, “Composition”. Here, we take a Briton out of Britain and dump him in the American mid-west, where he teaches English comprehension to randy students. This fish out of water is soon happily swimming around with his female students and colleagues, splashing through the pages in a very picaresque style. But Bradbury’s rogue seeks to deconstruct his own experience, even as he deconstructs his students’ efforts with As, Bs and Cs. I should have hated this story – it’s so post-modern it hurts – but it’s very well constructed and executed. Crucially, it’s also funny, cutting off most sighs of protest or indeed rolls of the eyes.
Fay Weldon’s “Weekend” stung me. On a par with Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen,” this shows us a hyper-busy wife and mother struggling with... well, everything. We rankle at her boorish husband and the crass social gatherings they host at a cottage with his friend and his new, nubile partner - a trade-in deal after he got rid of his own loyal, loving wife. Again, we see domesticity as a prison and a marriage as a grey, soulless place, a gulag of the heart – but Weldon sustains a terrific pace, and portrays the tragedy of a woman who has become a doormat, part of the furniture, an uninteresting fixture. It was the most disturbing story in the book, and it didn’t rely on bloodshed, sex or death to draw this reaction.
A change of pace next, in David Lodge’s “Hotel de Boobs”. Written in the 1980s, this story reflects the then-new (to the working classes) concept of taking a holiday in continental Europe and discovering that the women there like to take their tops off to sunbathe.
It all starts off as a joke to the husband at the start of the story, as he peers through the hotel curtains at the exposed flesh below while his wife prepares herself for the poolside. But it’s not only the continentals who like to show their wares, he finds – British women do it, too. The same women he bumps into in the restaurants and nods politely at in hotel corridors, their biological weapons safely sheathed. But by the pool, from the waist up, they’re gloriously, pendulously naked. He ogles them at length – he takes notes; he gives star ratings - his bulging eyes safely concealed behind sunglasses. He’s a boobs man, you see. “You were weaned too soon,” his wife says, amused by her Rumpelstiltskin hubbie’s reaction to bare bosoms.
But what if... heart kicks a little harder, palms sweat... what if his wife was to take her top off, too? For the appraisal of other men - looking, but not touching? Perhaps allowing him to see his wife’s body anew, through the eyes of other people? Wouldn’t that be... licks lips... wouldn’t that be the tiniest bit exciting?
Just when Lodge has us in his sticky palms, there’s an astonishing volte-face in the prose that throws everything into disarray. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a neat trick, and again it seeks to deconstruct the very story the author was trying to create.
I can’t answer for other countries, but in Britain there is still a bizarre mix of lust, shame and comedy to be found in how we view the naked body. It’s a kink that runs right through Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards to our national tabloids today, which will show the bare breasts of 18-year-old models on one page while denigrating the sexual exploitation of young people on another. It’s as if Benny Hill, bless his steamed-up glasses, never left us.
Is it a lingering hangover from the Victorian era? An obsession with appropriate dress and behaviour, and a Loki-style desire to contravene that? What happened to our projections of sexuality since those days? What caused us to tone it down, to button ourselves up? One imagines Victoria glowering at us, disdainful and cool... before giving us a quick flash of her petticoats.
Tearing myself away from that topic, there’s Beryl Bainbridge’s “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie”, a story of two generations of a working class family going to the pantomime to see a performance of Peter Pan. It’s a nice portrait of family life with a smidgen of class consciousness, but more importantly there are great jokes and familial bickering, which made me laugh. Ian McEwan’s “Psychopolis” didn’t; taking an oversexed, writerly Briton and dumping him in hazy, polluted Los Angeles, McEwan lays bare his usual pervy preoccupations and the clash between British reserve and American openness. It doesn’t portray one quality as better than the other, wisely. I once offended an American by replying “not bad”, when he asked me how my day had gone; the possible reason for this still fascinates me.
Angela Carter’s “Flesh and the Mirror” again transplants its British narrator into another place – Japan – and has her hooking up with a stranger for sex in an anonymous hotel room after she fails to meet up with her boyfriend. She then meets her boyfriend for sex in a re-run of the previous infidelity – “a parody,” she calls it. That I’ve given away this story’s plot is irrelevant, because it is more concerned with linguistic craftiness and gorgeous, striking phrases than A-Z plodding.
We’re sexy buggers, right enough. The collection’s second Amis, Martin, reinforces this notion with “Let Me Count the Times”. Here, an accountant’s sex drive reaches a higher gear once he uses his office’s brand new “computer” – the size of a hatchback car, I imagine, with a trance-inducing green screen - to compute the amount of times he has made love to his wife. He then tabulates the type of couplings enjoyed, the frequency of them, the significant figures of their relationship. This number-crunching stimulates an internal fantasy world that fuels a Krakatoan eruption of onanism. Amis’s descriptions of this self-abuse were so brilliantly written that I spluttered aloud, several times, before the story climaxes as all comedies must.
Rose Tremain’s “My Wife is a White Russian” is a depressing story about a businessman with a debilitating condition, attempting to eat dinner and drink wine at a fancy restaurant with two business clients. He’s unable to speak to them, so his gold-digging wife does most of the talking, as well as wiping the drool off his face. This could have been crass in so many ways, but for the melancholy bent of the narrator’s thoughts as he tries to piece together where he went wrong. And it speculates about Britain’s exploitation of its former colonies, and how it fares against new empires.
Salman Rushdie’s “The Prophet’s Hair” is a fine, Scheherazade-style story about a man who comes into possession of a religious artefact, and begins a strict Muslim regime in his household as a result. But far from allowing the family to achieve a state of grace, the Prophet’s hair sets off a chain of consequences for everyone who comes into contact with it. Again, whatever this story may have to show us about Britishness must be viewed through a post-imperialist prism, but it’s always lovely to read Rushdie regardless of how or where.
Julian Barnes’ “One of a Kind” reminds me of Ian Fleming’s James Bond short story, “Quantum of Solace”, in its delivery. At a stuffy party, the narrator meets a Romanian dissident (it was written seven years ahead of Ceaucescu’s demise) who tells him the story of Romania’s greatest novelist. Again, it’s hard to pick out a British theme, here; perhaps a sly celebration of publishing and freedom of expression, while still adopting a sniffy tone regarding foreign affairs.
Emma Tennant’s “Philomela” was a strange one, like a myth of antiquity – a strong feminist piece in which the uncontrolled desires and family structures put in place by bloodthirsty men are turned on their heads and defeated. It also made me hanker after a barbecue; I think I’ll get the tetanus kitchen out of my shed this weekend.
Clive Sinclair’s “Bedbugs” got my antennae prickling. Here, a lecturer seduces a young German student, and both of them are afflicted by the biting insects in the title. There was a lot to play with, especially the lingering British obsession with Germany and the Second World War, but Sinclair opts to go for a more subtle route. I guess good sex destroys every prejudice.
There’s a betrayed wife in that story, and there’s an abused one in Graham Swift’s “Seraglio”. This plays with the theme of British people bringing their civilised ways into conflict with those of “the other”; here, a childless couple are rocked by a moment of sexual impropriety carried out by a porter at a Turkish hotel. The couple’s reaction to this moment lays bare their relationship.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Family Supper” echoes a Homer Simpson skit where he tries the Japanese poison fish which can kill you if it isn’t prepared properly. This seemed the least British of all the stories, although, I guess, it does depict an unhappy family.
Last up, then, Adam Mars-Jones’s “Structural Anthropology”, which deconstructs the creation of urban myths – in particular, a story where an adulterous man has his penis glued to his hands by his vengeful wife – and how they operate in a sub-Freudian level. Very clever, and it got me thinking as well as laughing.
We’re done. I didn’t keep it short, did I? This is a fine collection, with some superb writers. But – and I’m sorry to finish on a downer – what’s with all the gloom?
Is there a partnership that stays stable? Is there a fecund relationship to be found anywhere? Don’t people conceive, carry, raise, nurture and love their children? Anyone reading this who’d never been to Britain would come away thinking the place was full of ascetic bores trapped in meaningless relationships, hemmed-in, henpecked, cuckolded, trapped, cheated on and unloved.
I want to say that the book is missing a bit of Celtic fire – but, like the notion of “Britishness”, that geographically-defined characteristic probably doesn’t exist either.