Tag Archives: Short Stories

Improper Stories by Saki

What a wonderful collection of stories this turned out to be – sharp, pithy and uproariously witty. I first heard about Saki’s Improper Stories via Max’s excellent review from 2014 – you can read it here. Saki (or, to give him his full name, Hector Hugh Munro) began his career as a journalist and political satirist and then went on to write a number of short stories and sketches, a selection of which are included in this volume. Several of his pieces were concerned with the absurdities of Edwardian society, particularly the ludicrous social conventions of the English upper classes. Here are the surface niceties of lavish garden parties, formal dinners and hunting events, all of which fall under Saki’s satirical gaze.

Improper Stories comprises eighteen stories first published in the years leading up to the start of the First World Word. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; my aims instead are to focus on a few favourites and to give a flavour of the volume as a whole.

Several of Saki’s stories feature mischievous children rebelling against disagreeable, strait-laced guardians. In The Lumber Room, one of my favourites in the collection, Nicholas must stay behind while the rest of the children are treated to a day out at Jagborough sands. It is his punishment for an earlier misdemeanour at the breakfast table, one involving a frog and a basin of ‘wholesome bread-and-milk’. At an early stage in the story, Saki paints a revealing portrait of Nicholas’s rather draconian aunt, the woman in charge of the household – in reality, however, she is only the boy’s ‘aunt-by-assertion’.

It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred; if all the children sinned collectively they were suddenly informed of a circus in a neighbouring town, a circus of unrivalled merit and uncounted elephants, to which, but for their depravity, they would have been taken that very day. (p. 30)

Convinced that young Nicholas will try to sneak off to the prized gooseberry garden while his cousins and brother are away on the trip, the aunt maintains a close watch on the entrances to the patch in an effort to spoil his fun. However, unbeknownst to the aunt, Nicholas has other plans for the day – he wishes to gain entry to the mysterious lumber room, a place normally kept under strict lock and key, only to be accessed by the more privileged members of the household. This is a very effective story in which the knowing child enjoys a moment of triumph over his authoritarian guardian.

In a similar vein, although somewhat darker, is Sredni Vashtar in which a different boy, Conradin, takes his revenge on an aunt by way of his polecat ferret, the pet he has kept hidden in a secret hutch in the garden shed. This is a macabre little story, very much in the style of a classic fairy tale.

Another cunning child plays a central role in Hyacinth, one of the sharpest stories in the collection. The story begins with a conversation between Hyacinth’s mother and her friend, Mrs Panstreppon. Hyacinth’s father is standing for election, and the boy’s mother is convinced that young Hyacinth would be an asset to the campaign. The trouble is, as Mrs P is just about to point out, while Hyacinth might look the part, he cannot necessarily be counted on to behave appropriately. I love the following quote which seems to capture something of Saki’s ridicule of the upper classes and the foolishness of their preoccupations.

‘Not take Hyacinth!’ exclaimed his mother; ‘but why not? Jutterly is bringing his three children, and they are going to drive a pair of Nubian donkeys about the town, to emphasise the fact that their father has been appointed Colonial Secretary. We are making the demand for a strong Navy a special feature in our campaign, and it will be particularly appropriate to have Hyacinth dressed in his sailor suit. He’ll look heavenly.’ (p. 37)

So, Hyacinth is allowed to attend the festivities, and at first he conducts himself impeccably, presenting the young Jutterlys with a gift of butterscotch. But then, while everyone else is busy watching the closing stages of the poll, the children disappear. It soon transpires that Hyacinth has locked the Jutterlys in a pigsty along with a litter of agitated piglets, much to the fury of the piglets’ mother who is now pacing up and down on the other side of the sty door. In effect, Hyacinth is holding the Jutterlys to ransom. If their father wins the election, he will open the door for the sow, allowing her to take wreak havoc on the children; but if his own father triumphs, he will be kind enough to lower a ladder into the sty, thereby enabling the Jutterlys to escape without harm. To discover how the end of the story plays out, you will have to read it for yourself.

Other highlights featuring precious or knowing children include The Boar-Pig, the marvellous tale of a socially-conscious woman who tries to sneak into a garden party unnoticed when in fact she hasn’t actually been invited, and The Story-Teller in which a group of young children take delight in being treated to a dark story with a sting in its tail, much to the dismay of their disapproving guardian.

The Boar-Pig is covered in detail in Max’s review, so I won’t elaborate on it any further here, save to say that it points to another of Saki’s recurring themes: mischievous or playful animals. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the final story of the collection, the fittingly titled Tobermory who turns out to be a most unusual cat. When the rather bland Cornelius Appin – a man with an apparent reputation for cleverness – is invited to Lady Blemley’s house party, he surprises the coterie of guests by announcing that he has been able to teach an animal to talk. The animal in question is, of course, the Blemleys’ cat, Tobermory. Unsurprisingly, everyone present is eager for a demonstration of Mr Appin’s skill, so Tobermory is rounded up and allowed to take centre stage. What follows is a hilarious sequence of revelations; not only does Tobermory speak as eloquently as anyone else at the party, but he also persists in telling the unfiltered truth, thereby revealing various secrets and private conversations much to the embarrassment of everyone present. Here is a brief extract from his pronouncements – Major Barfield is the first to speak.

Major Barfield plunged in heavily to effect a diversion.

‘How about your carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss up at the stables, eh?’

The moment he had said it everyone realised the blunder.

‘One does not usually discuss these matters in public,’ said Tobermory frigidly. ‘From a slight observation of your ways since you’ve been in this house I should imagine you’d find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation on to your own little affairs.’

The panic which ensued was not confined to the Major. (p. 125)

This is a deliciously impish story with a rather poignant coda, not only for Mr Appin and his fanciful pursuits, but for poor Tobermory too.

Several of the stories included here feature a recurring character, Clovis, who appears to be the embodiment of Saki at his most cutting. When he hears that a baby has gone missing in The Quest, Clovis responds with the following rather hilarious interjection. (Well, hilarious if you are reading the story; maybe not if you’re the parent of the baby in question.)

‘Perhaps an eagle or a wild beast has carried him off,’ suggested Clovis.

‘There aren’t eagles and wild beasts in Surrey’ said Mrs Momeby, but a tone of horror had crept into her voice. (p. 68)

This is a typical Clovis rejoinder – sharp, satirical and wickedly acerbic.

While the majority of these stories are witty and humorous, two or three are somewhat different in tone. Stories like The House of Fate, the rather poignant tale of a desolate wanderer who is mistaken for the master of a farm, a young man who disappeared some years earlier under a cloud of ill feeling; The Open Window, an eerie story which harks back to the tragic disappearance of a group of men precisely three years ago to the day; and The Music on the Hill, a rather macabre story which Max explores in his review. In many ways, they add variety to the collection, demonstrating Saki’s emotional range – he is a clearly writer with more than one string to his bow.

All in all, this is a first-rate collection of stories, one I’m delighted to have discovered.

Improper Stories is published by Daunt Books; personal copy.

Last Night by James Salter

Last year I wrote about A Sport and a Pastime, a critically acclaimed novel by the American writer James Salter, a book I liked in parts but didn’t particularly enjoy as a whole. This year I thought I’d try some of Salter’s short fiction – more specifically, Last Night (2006) a set of ten stories, many of which first appeared in various literary journals and magazines in the years leading up to the publication of this collection. Once again, this turned out to be a bit of a mixed experience for me due to the variable quality of the material. There is one standout story here, some very good ones, and a few that seem either less compelling or less memorable. Nevertheless, there is something intriguing about this author’s work, particularly his ability to capture particular moods or scenarios (e.g. the emotional charge between two lovers, the intensity of some of those key moments in life).

The opening story, Comet, features two typical Salter protagonists: a capable, elegant middle-class American man, Philip Ardet, and his beautiful wife, Adele.

She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried. (p. 4)

At first, all seems well in the Ardets’ relationship, their lives appear comfortable and settled; but as the story unfolds a somewhat different picture emerges. A conversation at a dinner party opens up old wounds for Philip and Adele as another woman reveals that her husband has been having a secret affair for the last seven years. As a consequence, we gain an insight into the bitterness that is eating away at Adele, an emotion that threatens the stability of her marriage to Philip.

In My Lord You, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, a drunken poet arrives late to a dinner party where he proceeds to harass, both verbally and sexually, another of the guests – a married woman named Ardis – spouting Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound in the process. (For his part, Ardis’ husband does nothing to intervene in the incident, a significant factor as it highlights his impotence when faced with the possibility of confrontation.)

In spite of being disturbed by this annoying poet, Ardis remains somewhat fascinated by him, so she goes in search of his poetry and then his house to see how he lives. Ultimately, Ardis is drawn into the poet’s life in a rather unexpected way, especially when his dog follows her home and proceeds to set up watch outside. This is a strange story, unsettling and compelling in relatively equal measure.

Such Fun features three young women at the end of a girls’ night out. Their conversations focus on the men they have been seeing, their recent break-ups, their past and current loves – in other words, the trials of finding the ‘right’ partner in life. But unbeknownst to the other two women there, Jane, the quietest member of the group, is carrying a painful burden, one she only reveals to an unknown taxi driver as he drives her home, the tears streaming down her face.

Several of the most successful stories in this collection feature unexpected twists or revelations towards the end, pieces like Give in which the all-too-familiar ‘comfortable man-having-an-affair-with-another-woman’ scenario is given a different spin. Others are more poignant, stories such as Palm Court, in which a man receives a phone call from a woman from his past, a development that triggers memories of their time together and the opportunities he failed to grasp.

Desire, betrayal, frustration – these are the emotions at the heart of many of these stories. In Platinum, another of my favourites in the collection, a seemingly happily married man is having an affair with a seductive young woman, only to be given away by a pair of his wife’s earrings when his lover insists on borrowing them. While this might sound like another rather clichéd scenario, Salter gives the story a new twist, the sort of development you don’t necessarily anticipate even though the clues are there in the narrative almost right from the very start.

The book ends on a startling note with the titular piece, Last Night, undoubtedly the best story in this collection. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions on this point.

It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neckline of her dress the skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness. She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone: it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came. (p. 123)

It is Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront Marit’s mortality; but once again, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising way, a move that causes us to question our earlier assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one that is likely to stay with you for quite some time.

In spite of the variability of the stories in this collection (I’ve skipped the lesser ones), the quality of Salter’s writing is never in doubt. As with much of this author’s work, there is a discernible undercurrent of sensuality running through several of these pieces, a mood that is matched by the elegant and graceful nature of the prose – you can probably see it in my first quote, the one on Adele. I’ll finish with a final passage, just because it captures something of Salter’s style, the way he can sketch a lasting image in just a few well-judged sentences.

At six, he somehow made his way home. It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvellous performance in which everyone somehow had a role. Lights had come on in the windows, the sidewalk restaurants were filling, children were running home late from playing in the park, the promise of fulfilment was everywhere. In an elevator a pretty woman he did not recognise was carrying a large bunch of flowers somewhere upstairs. She avoided looking at him. (pp. 84-85)

Last Night is published by Picador; personal copy

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy (tr. George Szirtes)

When I put together my list for the Classics Club back in December 2015, I included a few translations alongside various British and American novels I had been intending to read for a while. The Adventures of Sindbad was one of my random picks, a collection of interlinked stories by the Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy (the pieces were originally published in journals/magazines from 1911 to 1917 and then collated together in this volume in 1944). Krúdy was something of a literary star in his day, producing over fifty novels and some three thousand short pieces before his death in 1933. The Adventures of Sindbad comprises a series of stories and sketches featuring the titular character, Sindbad, a sort of Hungarian Don Juan, whose reminiscences of times past are recounted in this somewhat strange and haunting book.

Right from the start, Sindbad is portrayed as a rather charming rogue, a serial seducer and heart-breaker who flits from one desirable woman to another whenever the mood takes him. He loves the thrill of the chase, the constant stalking of his prey, so much so that he has a tendency to lose interest once the lady in question is within his grasp. If there was ever a quote that typified a character’s modus operandi, then this must surely be it:

His whole long life he had been ‘my darling’ to two or three women at any one time. He wouldn’t leave a woman in peace until she had fallen in love with him. And that was why he had spent one tenth of his life waiting under windows, gazing longingly, humbly, unhappily or threateningly. He had a genius for observing women, for following them secretly and discovering their hopes, secrets and desires. Sindbad spent so much time standing motionless, listening to the whirring of sewing machines in small suburban houses, or taking a carriage in order to follow another carriage that galloped along bearing a sweet-scented woman in a wide hat, or stealthily watching a lace-curtained window lit up for the night, or observing a woman at prayer in the church and trying to guess who or what she might be praying for, that sometimes he barely had time to pluck the fruit he coveted. He tired of the business: some new adventure attracted him, excited his blood, his dreams, his appetite, so he failed to complete his previous mission. And thus it was that in the course of his life some eleven or twelve women waited for him in vain, at rendezvous, in closed carriages, on walks through woods or at distant stations where two trains should have met. Sinbad wasn’t on the train, and the woman, that special one, would be standing hopefully at the window, watching from behind the curtains, frightened, wetting her dry lips with her tongue. And several trains would rattle by… (pp. 13-14)

Over the course of this book, Sindbad recalls the various women he has loved and lost over the course of his life. From peasant girls to countesses, from widows to actresses, Sindbad is hugely possessive over his conquests, often expecting them to remain faithful to him even when he has forsaken them for another. Here is a man with rather unrealistic expectations of his lovers, whose view of love is highly idealised, passionate and romantic. To Sindbad, love is everything; if there is no love, what is there left to live for?

He woke and the procession of dream women faded in the half-light of like a lantern carried by some housewife across a snow-covered yard on a winter evening. For a while the glow of the lamp may be seen against a wall or haystack; a dark-haired female figure sways on the ripples of darkness, then the last woman, bright-eye, wearing a feathered hat, finally disappears in the far distance – leaving Sindbad alone with his heartache. And shortly after this he began to feel ever more certain that very soon, perhaps within the hour, he would die. (pp. 28-29)

While there is little plot to speak of here, the sketches are packed full of vivid images. Pictures of these characters in their natural surroundings come to life in Krúdy’s hands.  Sinbad is especially fascinated by his conquests’ clothes. In his eyes, all women look the same when they are naked – but when they are dressed in all their finery (or not-so-finery), that’s another matter altogether. He has a penchant for a finely turned ankle, especially when it is clothed in a delicate stocking.

Sindbad could still see the trace left by his kiss on the fading velvet of her lips: amorous farm-girls’ bodies left just such marks among the meadow flowers, their contours still apparent on the crushed lawn. The white neck which craned so curiously from the black dress was like a bird’s neck twinkling under the black velvet ribbon, the pocket of her coat was warm and lined with cat fur and made a little nest into which Sindbad slid his hand to find hers. (pp. 63-64)

Hungary suffered heavily in the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, and I think it’s possible to detect a sense of this pain in Krúdy’s stories. As George Szirtes explains in his excellent introduction to the NYRB edition of this book, the country lost two-thirds of its land and one-third of its population to neighbouring territories when the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon were agreed. Krúdy’s tone is highly melancholy and elegiac; the veil of nostalgia lies over every story, and the shadow of death – suicide, in particular – is never far away. (Sinbad is heavily preoccupied with his own mortality, and thoughts of his impending death feature in several of his reminiscences from the afterlife.) Interestingly though, Krúdy’s style could also be described as modernist, a feature that provides a fascinating contrast to the long-established, traditional world he depicts in these sketches. There are early elements of magical realism here as Sinbad’s spirit comes back as a sprig of mistletoe; and then he wonders whether it might have been more interesting to return as an ornamental comb instead – perhaps so. Either way, there are playful notes in some of these stories, ironic touches that serve to balance some of the underlying sadness and sense of loss.

I think I heard about this book via Emma at Book Around the Corner. As Emma quite rightly points out in her excellent billet – do read it – these stories need to be spaced out over time. There is some wonderful writing here, sumptuous and evocative in style; but as with anything rich, it is best consumed in small doses. If I have a criticism of these pieces, I would say that for me they lack an element of differentiation. After a while, there is a tendency for several these individual romantic encounters to merge into one. For the most part, the objects of Sindbad’s attention are lightly sketched in terms of character/personality, an approach that doesn’t always make it easy to distinguish one story from the next. Nevertheless, I’m glad I decided to read this collection; I think it would suit lovers of European literature, particularly those interested in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early part of the 20th century. Fans of Gaito Gazdanov’s work should take a look at these stories too; there are some interesting parallels between these writers, particularly in terms of tone and themes.

The Adventures of Sindbad is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Stephen Twilley)

Shortly before his death in 1957, the Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote The Professor and the Siren, a beguiling short story published here alongside two additional pieces: a brief sketch entitled Joy and the Law, and the opening chapter of an unfinished novel, The Blind Kittens. Lampedusa is best known for his landmark historical novel, The Leopard, a book I have yet to read (it’s on my list for the Classics Club). In the meantime, I’m treating this slim collection as an appetiser, a little taste of things to come.

The titular piece, The Professor and the Siren, is the star of the show here, an enigmatic story of great elegance and beauty. Set in Turin in 1938, it is narrated by Paolo Corbera, a young journalist and a bit of a womaniser who is now seeking a brief respite from the fairer sex; unfortunately for the journalist, his attempts to maintain two separate lovers at the same time have recently come to the attention of the ladies concerned. In search of a retreat from his usual lifestyle, Corbera starts to visit a café in the heart of Turin, a traditional place frequented by members of the city’s old guard – colonels, magistrates, academics and suchlike. One evening, he notices a man at the next table, and his interest is immediately piqued.

On my right sat an elderly man wrapped in an old overcoat with a worn astrakhan collar. He read foreign magazines one after another, smoked Tuscan cigars and frequently spat. Every so often he would close his magazine and appear to be pursuing some memory in the spirals of smoke; then he would go back to reading and spitting. […] Once, however, he when he came across a photograph in a magazine of an archaic Greek statue, the kind with widespread eyes and an ambiguous smile, I was surprised to see his disfigured fingers caress the image with positively regal delicacy. (p. 3)

The two men strike up a conversation with one another, a dialogue that continues to develop over the course of a few weeks as the pair return to the café on a nightly basis. Corbera’s new friend is Senator Rosario La Ciura, an eminent professor in the field of Hellenic Studies, a somewhat grumpy and insolent man who eschews pretty much everything to do with the modern world and the permissive society therein. In many ways, the two men are complete opposites: one is young, the other old; one is liberal in his views, the other scathing, particularly when it comes to the young women of the day. And yet they have one vital thing in common: both men hail from the beautiful, mythical island of Sicily.

So we spoke about eternal Sicily, the Sicily of the natural world; about the scent of rosemary on the Nebrodi Mountains and the taste of Melilli honey; about the swaying cornfields seen from Etna on a windy day in May, some secluded spots near Syracuse, and the fragrant gusts from the citrus plantations known to sweep down on Palermo during sunset in June. We spoke of those magical summer nights, looking out over the gulf of Castellammare, when the stars are mirrored in the sleeping sea, and how, lying on your back among the mastic trees, your spirit is lost on the whirling heavens, while the body braces itself, fearing the approach of demons. (pp. 10-11)

One evening, the professor decides to tell Corbera the story of an idyllic summer he spent in Augusta, Syracuse, many years earlier in his youth – a story he hopes will explain some of the reasons behind his rather idiosyncratic behaviour and philosophy towards life. While in Augusta, the young La Ciura spent many hours studying on a boat, gently rocking to and fro on the peaceful waters. One morning, ‘the smooth face of a sixteen-year-old emerged from the sea’, a movement that was accompanied by a pull on the side of the craft as the youngster gripped the gunwale. Naturally, the budding professor was transfixed by this image, one he describes to Corbera in intimate detail.

This, however, was not a smile like those to be seen among your sort, always debased with an accessory expression of benevolence or irony, of compassion, cruelty, or whatever the case may be; it expressed nothing but itself: an almost bestial delight in existing, a joy almost divine. This smile was the first of her charms that would affect me, revealing paradises of forgotten serenity. From her disordered hair, which was the colour of the sun, seawater dripped into her exceedingly open green eyes, over features of infantile purity. (p. 29)

What followed was an intensely passionate encounter between the pair, one that undoubtedly left its mark on the professor for the rest of his life.

This is a very sensual story of eternal love, yearning and loss in which Lampedusa’s use of language perfectly matches both the subject matter and the setting. It ends with a slight twist, finishing on a bittersweet note which leaves the reader with much to ponder, particularly about the intensity of certain moments in life. At times, I was reminded of some of the scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s beautiful film L’Avventura. It has a similar tone, I think. There are nods to classical Greek mythology too. Either way, this is an excellent story, worth the entry price of the collection alone.

The next piece in the collection, Joy and the Law, is a brief tale with a moral message at the centre. It features a hard-up accountant, struggling to keep himself and his family afloat in the face of mounting debts. Luckily, as it’s Christmas, our protagonist has just received his annual bonus, something that will keep the wolf from the door at least for the immediate future.

Contained in the wallet was 37,245 lire, the year-end bonus he’d received an hour earlier, amounting to the removal of several thorns from his family’s side: his landlord, to whom he owed two quarters’ rent, growing more insistent the longer he was thwarted; the exceedingly punctual collector of installment payments on his wife’s veste de lapin (“It suits you much better than a long coat, my dear, it’s slimming”); the black looks of the fishmonger and greengrocer. (p. 40)

In spite of this, the accountant seems more chuffed with his fifteen-pound panettone, a gift he has received for being the most deserving employee in the business. Nevertheless, our protagonist’s joy is somewhat short-lived. When he arrives home with his bounty, the accountant is reminded by his wife that there are also other debts to pay, those of a slightly different nature but equally important. This is an enjoyable little sketch, ironic in tone, a pleasant interlude between the other two stories in this volume.

The final piece in this collection, The Blind Kittens, was originally intended to form the opening chapter of a follow-up novel to The Leopard. Consequently, it is best viewed in this context – as an introduction that was to lay the groundwork for an epic story to follow. Sadly, Lampedusa never had the opportunity to develop the narrative any further due to his untimely death (he was just 60 years old when he died). Nevertheless, The Blind Kittens is well worth reading in its own right. As an opening passage, it sows the seeds of a tale of intrigue set within the context of the Ibba dynasty, an influential Sicilian family headed up by the rather formidable and unscrupulous virtual baron, Don Batassano. In the first few pages of the story, we learn that Don Batassano has just acquired another property to add to his empire. As Batassano’s lawyer, Ferrara, peruses a map of the Ibba family holdings, he reflects on the underhand means behind the various acquisitions over the years.

Ferrara stood up to take a closer look. From his professional experience, from countless indiscretions overheard, he knew well how that enormous mass of property had been assembled: an epic tale of cunning, of lack of scruples, of defiance of the laws, of implacability and also of luck, of daring as well. (p. 52)

Once again, this piece is very different in tone from the preceding two. It is sharper, more cutting in style, rich in both detail and texture. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s wonderful classic, The House of Ulloa, a novel I reviewed last year. What a shame Lampedusa never got the opportunity to finish this work – it could have been another masterpiece.

Guy and Karen have posted interesting reviews of this collection, just click on the relevant links to read them.

The Professor and the Siren is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

Back in 2015, Richard Yates made my end-of-year highlights with The Easter Parade, a beautiful yet sad novel about the Grimes sisters and the different paths they take in life. There’s a good chance he’ll be on my list again in 2017, this time with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), a peerless collection of stories as good as any I’ve read in recent years. Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness (there are other reasons too, which I’ll try to touch on later). As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the volume as a whole.

yates-lonely

In The Best of Everything, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, we meet Grace, a young woman on the brink of marrying her fiancé, Ralph. As she finishes up her work on the Friday before the wedding, Grace reflects on her situation as the doubts begin to run through her mind. Maybe her roommate, Martha, was right after all; maybe she is settling for second best.

She had been calling him “darling” for only a short time—since it had become irrevocably clear that she was, after all, going to marry him—and the word still had an alien sound. As she straightened the stacks of stationary in her desk (because there was nothing else to do), a familiar little panic gripped her: she couldn’t marry him—she hardly even knew him. Sometimes it occurred to her differently, that she couldn’t marry him because she knew him too well, and either way it left her badly shaken, vulnerable to all the things that Martha, her roommate, had said from the very beginning. (p. 23)

When she discovers that her roommate is going away for the night, Grace plans a surprise for Ralph, a pre-marital treat that doesn’t quite go to plan. Instead, Grace gets a glimpse of what life may hold for her once she is married: the need to carefully manage the dynamic between husband and wife.

A Glutton for Punishment features a classic Yates protagonist, Walter Henderson, a rather unassuming young man who works in a Manhattan office in the heart of NYC. Walter, a graceful and gracious loser all his life, is convinced he is about to be fired from his job. In spite of his wife’s best efforts to make their home life as bearable as possible, the weight of this expectation hangs over Walter on a permanent basis.

And lately, when he started coming home with a beaten look and announcing darkly that he doubted if he could hold on much longer, she would enjoin the children not to bother him (“Daddy’s very tired tonight”), bring him a drink and soothe him with careful, wifely reassurance, doing her best to conceal her fear, never guessing, or at least never showing, that she was dealing with a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse. (pp. 73-4)

This is a wonderful story, one that touches on the anxieties of life, the sense of pride and respect we all crave from those around us. Moreover, it also highlights the different roles a wife and mother was expected to play back in the late 1950s/early ‘60s, the various modes she had to adopt, irrespective of how taxing or frustrating they proved to be.

This bright cocktail mood was a carefully studied effect, he knew. So was her motherly sternness over the children’s supper; so was the brisk, no-nonsense efficiency with which, earlier today, she had attacked the supermarket; and so, later tonight, would be the tenderness of her surrender in his arms. The orderly rotation of many careful moods was her life, or rather, was what her life had become. She managed it well, and it was only rarely, looking very closely at her face, that he could see how much the effort was costing her. (p. 85)

Yates is particularly good when it comes to depicting the loneliness one often experiences in childhood, the challenges and difficulties associated with our schooldays. In Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern, we meet Vincent Sabella, a somewhat coarse boy who also happens to be the new kid in class.

The girls decided that he wasn’t very nice and turned away, but the boys lingered in their scrutiny, looking him up and down with faint smiles. This was the kind of kid they were accustomed to thinking of as “tough,” the kind whose stares had made all of them uncomfortable at one time or another in unfamiliar neighborhoods; here was a unique chance for retaliation. (p. 2)

While Miss Price, the fourth-grade teacher, does her best to make Vincent feel welcome, none of the children in the class seem willing to make an effort. As a consequence, Vincent spends virtually all of his breaks alone, desperately trying to kill time. When Miss Pryce tries to befriend Vincent, things don’t go as smoothly as expected. What follows is a sequence of events that highlights how loneliness can come about as a direct consequence of our own behaviour towards others, the actions we take when our frustrations bubble up to the surface.

Fun with a Stranger explores a different type of experience at school – that of being saddled with a ghastly teacher, in this case, a ‘big rawboned woman’ named Miss Snell. In direct contrast to her counterpart, the warm and engaging Mrs Cleary (the teacher who takes the other half of third grade), Miss Snell is strict and lacking in humour, forever pulling up the children for mumbling, daydreaming, frequent trips to the toilet, and, worst of all, for ‘coming to school without proper supplies’.

She never seemed to lose her temper, but it would almost have been better if she did, for it was the flat, dry, passionless redundance of her scolding that got everybody down. When Miss Snell singled someone out for a special upbraiding it was an ordeal by talk. She would come up to within a foot of her victim’s face, her eyes would stare unblinkingly into his, and the wrinkled gray flesh of her mouth would labor to pronounce his guilt, grimly and deliberately, until all the color faded from the day. (p. 107)

As this story unfolds, we see the impact of Miss Snell’s approach on the morale of her half of the intake – and how this compares to Mrs Cleary’s. There are times when the children are embarrassed by Miss Snell’s failure to show any enthusiasm or inspiration, especially when the two classes come together for a field trip. As Christmas approaches, the children hope that Miss Snell won’t let them down. Will she be able to match her colleague’s plans for a festive party? You’ll have to read this excellent story for yourselves to find out.

Two of the stories are set in hospitals, in TB wards to be precise. No Pain Whatsoever gives us a glimpse into the life of Myra, a woman who has been visiting her husband in hospital every Sunday for the past four years. This is a poignant story of an individual trapped in a stagnant marriage, isolated from her spouse both physically and emotionally. However, unbeknownst to her husband, Myra has found comfort in the form of another man.

Continuing the theme of illness, Out With the Old takes place in a Veterans hospital on New Year’s Eve, just a few days after most of the TB patients have returned to their ward after being allowed home for Christmas. Yates really captures the loneliness and loss of identity experienced by some of these patients when they come back to the hospital, a place where they must all dress alike in standard issue pyjamas. Here is Harold’s experience. (Even his name changes when he arrives back at the ward. Nobody calls him Harold here – instead, he is known as ‘Tiny’ on account of his imposing height.)

He remained Harold until the pass was over and he strode away from a clinging family farewell, shrugging the great overcoat around his shoulders and squaring the hat. He was Harold all the way to the bus terminal and all the way back to the hospital, and the other men still looked at him oddly and greeted him a little shyly when he pounded back into C Ward. He went to his bed and put down his several packages (one of which contained the new robe), then headed for the latrine to get undressed. That was the beginning of the end, for when he came out in the old faded pajamas and scuffed slippers there was only a trace of importance left in his softening face, and even that disappeared in the next hour of two, while he lay on his bed and listened to the radio. (p. 165)

Others feel like strangers in their own homes when they go back to ‘the outside’. Things have moved on; children have grown older, more distant. Consequently, patients feel rather out of touch with their own families.

Some of Yates’ stories hark back to the days of WWII, including a piece featuring a strict and vindictive drill sergeant in charge of a platoon of young troops. There is a common theme which runs through a few of the pieces here, a sense of frustration and lack of power felt by the men who fought in the war, their current, fairly stagnant lives falling some way short of the heady expectations of their glory days. This feeling of rage comes out in The B.A.R. Man when a dispirited ex-serviceman finds himself caught up in a protest at the end of an exasperating night.

The final story, Builders, is one of the highlights here, a piece featuring a talented yet struggling writer who finds himself working as a ghostwriter for a somewhat delusional but sharp-witted taxi driver. It’s impossible to do it justice in a few sentences, but Yates paints an intriguing picture, full of insight. It left me wondering if this sketch was based on a real-life encounter with the cabbie, a man who dreams of building stories as a way of injecting some meaning into his somewhat shallow life.

All in all, this is a truly brilliant collection, one that gets right to the heart of certain aspects of human nature. These are stories to linger over, to savour and absorb – very highly recommended.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

First published in 1939, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin consists of a series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by the author’s time in the city during the early 1930s. Originally destined to form part of a large episodic novel focusing on the pre-Hitler era, Goodbye can now be viewed as a companion piece to Isherwood’s earlier novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). Together, the two books form The Berlin Novels, published in the UK by Vintage Books. Given the fact that Mr Norris made my end-of-year highlights in 2016, I had high hopes for this second instalment – luckily it did not disappoint.

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Goodbye opens with A Berlin Diary, a series of vignettes taken from the autumn of 1930 when Isherwood was living in a room at a traditional boarding house in the heart of the city. It’s an interesting place, full of colourful characters, all of whom remain under the watchful eye of the landlady, the inquisitive but kindly Frl. Schroeder. Christopher – or ‘Herr Issyvoo’ as she calls him – is clearly her favourite. This chapter acts as an excellent scene-setter, giving the reader a brief flavour of some of the inhabitants of the house: there is the young lady of the night, Frl. Kost; the butch music-hall singer, Frl. Mayr; and the smartly-dresser mixer from the Troika bar, Bobby. It all makes for an eclectic mix, especially given the fact that Bobby and Frl. Kost are having an affair, a development that may well explain Frl. Schroeder’s jealousy over the girl.

Without a doubt, the standout piece in this novel is the second story, Sally Bowles. An English girl by birth, 19-year-old Sally came to Berlin with a girlfriend in the hope of finding work as a singer/actress. By the time she meets Christopher through a mutual friend, Sally is just about scraping a living, singing (quite badly) at one of the city’s bars, the Lady Windermere. Nevertheless, she makes quite an impression on Christopher, dressed as she is in black silk ‘with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head’. Here’s a brief excerpt from Christopher’s first encounter with Sally, a meeting which takes place at their friend’s flat – Sally has just asked her friend Fritz if she can use his phone.

‘Hilloo,’ she cooed, pursing her brilliant cherry lips as though she were going to kiss the mouthpiece: ‘Ist dass Du, mein Liebling?’ Her mouth opened in a fatuously sweet smile. Fritz and I sat watching her, like a performance at the theatre.

[…]

She hung up the receiver and turned to us triumphantly.

‘That’s the man I slept with last night,’ she announced. He makes love marvellously. He’s an absolute genius at business and he’s terribly rich –’ She came and sat down on the sofa beside Fritz, sinking back into the cushions with a sigh. ‘Give me some coffee, will you, darling? I’m simply dying of thirst.’ (p. 269, The Berlin Novels)

I love that passage as it seems to capture the essence of Sally’s character – in particular, her alluring voice and provocative behaviour.

Fairly soon after their first meeting, Sally invites Christopher to tea at her lodgings a gloomy semi-furnished place presided over by a rather eccentric old landlady. Before long the pair strike up a somewhat unlikely friendship, spending time with one another on a fairly regular basis, much to the delight of Frl. Schroeder who imagines Sally as a potential partner for her favourite boarder.

The afternoon Sally came to tea with me, Frl. Schroeder was beside herself with excitement. She put on her best dress for the occasion and waved her hair. When the door-bell rang, she threw open the door with a flourish. ‘Herr Issyvoo,’ she announced, winking knowingly at me and speaking very loud, ‘there’s a lady to see you!’ (p.280) 

While she longs to be a famous actress, Sally never makes much of an effort to find any suitable work. Instead, she falls for a handsome musician, Klaus, the pianist from the Lady Windermere. In time, this relationship breaks down, but Sally soon gets over it. She gets by on a diet of cigarettes and Prairie Oysters, forever hoping that a rich lover might come along to keep her in the manner to which she aspires. It’s an utterly charming story, a wonderful tribute to this larger-than-life character from Isherwood’s past.

On Ruegen Island, the third piece in the sequence, tells of a summer Christopher spends by the Baltic Sea. While there he meets two other men: Peter Wilkinson, a rather nervous, uptight English chap of a similar age to Isherwood himself, and Otto Nowak, a 16-year-old working class boy from Berlin. Although Peter and Otto are living together, their relationship is far from solid. Otto, a gregarious, physical lad, is keen to go dancing most evenings, while Peter prefers to stay in their room (or to spend time with Christopher, with whom he seems to have more in common). Somewhat inevitably, Peter and Otto’s relationship comes to an end, and the two men go their separate ways: Peter back to England and Otto to Berlin.

Once he is back in the capital, Christopher re-establishes contact with Otto in the hope of finding a cheap room in his part of the city. As it happens, Frau Nowak (Otto’s mother) takes a shine to her son’s rather cultured friend, and Christopher ends up moving into the Nowaks’ crowded flat, a noisy, damp and smelly dwelling in one of the city’s dilapidated tenement buildings. What follows is a series of colourful vignettes as Christopher finds himself caught in the middle of the Nowaks’ antics. Young Otto proves to be a source of near-constant torment to his mother, forever lazing around the place and getting under her feet as she tries to manage the busy household. Otto, for his part, enjoys making mischief, winding up his mother in the process. It all makes for plenty of fun. Eventually though, Christopher finds life at the Nowaks too distracting; the time has come for him to move on.

At various points in the novel, Isherwood makes reference to the political climate in Berlin at the time. Here’s one of the earliest mentions, taken from the autumn of 1930.

One night in October 1930, about a month after the Elections, there was a big row on the Leipzigerstrasse. Gangs of Nazi roughs turned out to demonstrate against the Jews. They manhandled some dark-haired, large-nosed pedestrians, and smashed the windows of all the Jewish shops. The incident was not, in itself, very remarkable, there were no deaths, very little shooting, not more than a couple of dozen arrests. I remember it only because it was my first introduction to Berlin politics. (p. 409)

As the novel moves towards its conclusion, these instances increase in frequency. Berlin is changing, the atmosphere becoming increasingly uneasy and dangerous by the day, the Nazis more visible on the streets. The outlook is particularly uncertain for the Jews in the city, families like the wealthy and successful Landauers, the subject of the fifth section of the book. Natalia Landauer is a very forthright young lady, and Christopher strikes up a friendship with her by way of a letter of introduction to the household. Perhaps the most interesting character here is Natalia’s cousin, Bernhard, manager of the family’s upmarket department store in Berlin. There is something terribly tragic about Bernhard, a complex character who puzzles, intrigues and frustrates Christopher in fairly equal measure. Once again, the feeling of a world about to crumble is hovering in the background. In this scene, Christopher is at a garden party at Bernhard’s villa in the country. It is the day of a referendum to decide the fate of the Brüning government.

Over there, in the city, the votes were being counted. I thought of Natalia: she has escaped – none too soon, perhaps. However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is a dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch. (p. 453)

As the book draws to a close in the winter of 1932-3, there is a sense of people slowly acclimatising to the new reality of the city, Berliners like Frl. Schroeder who seemed destined to remain there forever.

I really loved this novel with its wealth of engaging vignettes and striking cast of characters. As one might expect, Isherwood’s evocation of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures a little of the book’s humour. It’s typical of some of the passages in the Berlin diaries that bookend the novel. This passage makes reference to a letter Frl. Schroeder has received from one of her former boarders, the singer Frl. Mayr.

Frl. Mayr has also had trouble with her colleagues. At one town, a rival actress jealous of Frl. Mayr’s vocal powers, tried to stab her in the eye with a hairpin. I can’t help admiring that actress’s courage. When Frl. Mayr had finished with her, she was so badly injured that she couldn’t appear on the stage again for a week. (p. 471)

My thanks to Max who persuaded me to read the Berlin novels in the first place – you can read his excellent review of Goodbye here.

Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope

Last December I couldn’t resist buying a couple of these lovely Penguin Christmas Classics with their beautiful covers and decorative endpapers – they make wonderful gifts. Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories – my first read in the series – brings together five short stories by Anthony Trollope, all with a seasonal theme. Shot through with the author’s customary insight into the dynamics of human relationships, these stories mostly depict the English middle classes and gentry of the Victorian era, their lives governed by the social conventions of the time.

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The book opens with the titular story, which happens to be one of the strongest pieces in the collection. Having grown accustomed to spending their winters in the South of France, Mr and Mrs Brown are travelling back to England for a family gathering at Thompson Hall in Stratford. Mrs Brown’s younger sister is to be married, and this will be the couple’s first opportunity to meet the girl’s fiancé in person. With her fondness for the traditions of the season, Mrs Brown is eager to get to Thompson Hall in time for Christmas Eve. Her husband, however, seems reluctant to make the trip for fear of aggravating his weak chest and throat, a condition which prompts the couple to break their journey to spend the night in Paris. When his wife asks him if there is anything she can do to relieve his suffering, Mr Brown identifies just the thing – the application of a mustard compress to the throat is sure to be of great help. (As it turns out, Mr B is something of a hypochondriac.)

Down in the salon he had seen a large jar of mustard standing on a sideboard. As he left the room he had observed that this had not been withdrawn with the other appurtenances of the meal. If she could manage to find her way down there, taking with her a handkerchief folded for the purpose, and if she could then appropriate a part of the contents of that jar, and returning with her prize, apply it to his throat, he thought that he could get some relief, so that he might be able to leave his bed the next morning at five. “But I am afraid it will be very disagreeable for you to go down all alone at this time of night,” he croaked out in a piteous whisper.

“Of course I’ll go,” she said. “I don’t mind going in the least. Nobody will bite me,” and she at once began to fold a clean handkerchief. “I won’t be two minutes, my darling, and if there is a grain of mustard in the house I’ll have it on your chest immediately.” (pp. 7-8)

What follows is a hilarious sequence of white lies, misunderstandings and coincidences, all of which culminates in a most embarrassing predicament for Mrs Brown. To say any more might spoil the story – this is a wonderful piece, one that makes an excellent introduction to the collection.

Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage is a beautifully observed story of the dynamics between two young lovers who are drawn together over the festive season. While Isabel Lownd, the daughter of the household, and Maurice Archer, a ward of the family, clearly have feelings for one another, a disagreement over their respective views of Christmas leads to a bit of an impasse. One of the joys of this piece is the interplay between Isabel and Maurice as they try to hold their respective positions, hiding their true feelings for one another in the process.

Why had Isabel made herself so disagreeable, and why had she perked up her head as she left the room in that self-sufficient way, as though she was determined to show him that she did not want his assistance? Of course, she had understood well enough that he had not intended to say that the ceremonial observance of the day was a bore. He had spoken of the beef and the pudding, and she had chosen to pretend to misunderstand him. He would not go near the church. And as for his love, and his half-formed resolution to make her his wife, he would get over it altogether. If there were one thing more fixed with him than another, it was that on no consideration would he marry a girl who should give herself airs. (p. 77)

This is a gentle story of misunderstandings, pride, generosity and the true spirit of Christmas, another fine addition to the collection.

The Mistletoe Bough has much in common with the previous piece, set as it is in the home of another English family coming together over the festive season. Central to the story are two young sweethearts, Elizabeth Garrow, and her former fiancé, Godfrey Holmes. Some months earlier, a disagreement between the pair caused their brief engagement to come to an end; nevertheless, Elizabeth remains very much in love with Godfrey even if she refuses to admit it. Once again, Trollope illustrates his skills in portraying the dynamics of human relationships. I particularly like Trollope’s depiction of the women in these stories as he seems genuinely interested in their thoughts and feelings. Here’s a short quote from a conversation between the couple in question – Godfrey is the first to speak.

“In marriage should not the man and woman adapt themselves to each other?”

“When they are married, yes; and every girl who thinks of marrying should know that in very much she must adapt herself to her husband. But I do not think a woman should be the ivy, to take the direction of every branch of the tree to which she clings. If she does so, what can be her own character?” (p. 148)

While the outcome of this story is somewhat predictable, it is nevertheless an engaging read.

The Two Generals is rather different from the other pieces in this collection. Set in Kentucky in the early 1860s, this is the story of a family fractured by the divisions of the American Civil War. It features a father and his two sons: Tom, the elder of the boys, a Southern gentleman who has profited from the presence of slave labour on his land; and Frank, the younger son, a member of the National Army and supporter of the North. The two brothers end up joining opposing sides in the war – Tom for the Confederacy, Frank for the Union – a situation which creates significant tension within the family. (Tom has already claimed that he will not hesitate to shoot his own brother should he come face to face with him on the battlefield.) Furthermore, both brothers are in love with the same woman, Ada Forster, a distant relative of the family who also happens to live in their house. Somewhat surprisingly given her Yankee sympathies, Ada is engaged to Tom; Frank, with his strong conviction to the principles of the Union, remains ever hopeful of winning her hand. To a certain extent, the narrative plays out as the brothers return home over successive Christmases while the war continues to rage on their doorstep. This is an excellent story, one of the highlights here.

The book closes with Not If I Know It, the shortest and least memorable piece in the collection. It centres on a disagreement between two brothers-in-law, something that could have been resolved fairly quickly and easily. Once again, misunderstandings, unnecessary pride and bruised feelings all play a role here, but in this instance the characters seem thinly sketched compared to those in the other stories.

Overall, this is a most enjoyable collection, one that would make a fine introduction to Trollope’s style. Ali has also reviewed this book here.

Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories is published by Penguin Books.