Friday, 17 February 2012

Battered Penguins XVII

I loved this collection, which was published in 1972. It begins with The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy, the story of a young minister called Stockdale, "a lonely young fellow, who had for weeks felt a great craving for somebody on whom to throw away superfluous interest, and even tenderness." This is followed by  Rudyard Kipling's William the Conqueror, set in India and including a description of how useless aid applied without reference to local culture can be, (and, in reverse, if that makes sense, a perfect illustration of what led to the death of Burke and Wills):

"They clamoured for rice - unhusked paddy, such as they were accustomed to - and, when they found that there was none, broke away weeping from the sides of the cart. What was the use of these strange hard grains that choked their throats? They would die. And then and there were many of them kept their word...Scott understood dimly that many people in the India of the South ate rice, as a rule, but he had spent his service in a grain Province, had seldom seen rice in the blade or the ear, and least of all would have believed that, in time of deadly need, men would die at arm's length of plenty, sooner than touch food they did not know."

As well as illustrating the well-meaning hopelessness that the Empire sometimes created, Kipling's story is really perceptive about humans in general. Until now I've only read the Just So Stories and various bits of his poetry, but, after reading this, I'm going to hunt down other short stories by him.

After William the Conqueror comes The Bucket and the Rope by T.F Powys, which is one of the most original stories I have ever read - it's narrators are, in fact, a bucket and a rope. E.M Forster follows Powys, with a story called The Road from Colonus. I am mildly allergic to E.M. Forster, so probably cannot provide a fair assessment of the story. It deals with an Englishman abroad who has an epiphany, a theme that I have the impression was regularly on Forster's mind. Its tone is mildly flippant, I think - or perhaps I just took it the wrong way. It irritated me.

Joyce's Ivy Day in the Committee Room follows The Road from Colonus and, for me at least, provides a bracing antidote to Forster's faint archness.  The Mark on the Wall, Virginia Woolf's contribution, plunges us back into the stifling world of the English middle classes. It is essentially three pages of stream of consciousness, marred by a rather silly punchline. The phrase I liked best in it was, " Wood is a pleasant thing to think about."

After Woolf, we are given D.H Lawrence's The Horsedealer's Daughter. I have always liked Lawrence, even though I recognise he was maddening and fairly bonkers. This story is also fairly bonkers, with the usual Lawrentian love of PASSION over mere emotions. The editor of the book has placed it cleverly in the collection - after the pale, (mildly insipid?), Woolf piece, this comes across like an ungenteel howl.

Next up, there is the breathless romantic hopefulness of Katherine Mansfield's Feuille d'Album. As always when I read Mansfield, I admire her but find her a bit lispingly charming and clinging to a rather girlish femininity.

There is no girlish femininity about Joyce Cary's Government Baby, which follows Mansfield's story. It, like Kipling's story, tells a story of expatriates in an outpost of the British Empire called Dabbi, "where there was no butter, no potatoes, no ice; where newspapers were a fortnight old, the library consisted of two Edgar Wallaces and somebody's Auction Bridge with all the middle pages torn out, and nothing ever happened except in the native town which was a perfect nuisance in any case." As I have an irrational aversion to the medical profession, I was particularly pleased by Cary's comment that, "All doctors tend to autocracy, and Government doctors are tyrants."

Robert Graves is the next contributor to the collection, with The Lost Chinese, quite an amusing satire of show business and celebrity. Handsome is as Handsome Does by VS Pritchett follows, a chilling but compelling account of the mutual bonds and lonely loyalties of an unhappy marriage between 'two ugly people living in their desert island', marred for modern readers by repeated references to one character as 'The Jew', (this character is not portrayed as a villain, but the very acknowledgment of race these days is discomfiting). Pritchett's understanding of the strange, ignoble motivations of his characters is extraordinary and his descriptions are exceptionally precise.

If the editor wanted to highlight Graham Greene's shortcomings by placing his story, The Destructors, straight after Pritchett's masterly work, he succeeded, as far as I'm concerned. Once again, I was struck by the didacticism and lack of complexity or subtlety in Greene's writing. Angus Wilson, who comes next, with a story called After the Show, is not really a very great writer either, but he does manage to create a world that is particularly his and that I am quite fond of entering from time to time, partly because I like the sense of the absurdity of human nature that I think lies beneath all of his writing - no-one is ever heroic in a work by Wilson.

Penultimately, there is a Muriel Spark story, You Should have Seen the Mess, which I thought was really disappointing, as I admire Spark generally - this, however, was snobbish and silly. Never mind. To end the book there is Kingsley Amis's Interesting Things, which is as good and funny as Lucky Jim, and also, surprisingly given his reputation as a misogynist, told very perceptively from a woman's point of view. The recurrent motif of the forgotten packet of crisps is wonderfully hilarious.

Until I read this book, I'd had a vague idea that the short story was supposed to be sealed somehow, to contain a description of a significant moment that encapsulates the existence of a character, that provides them with an epiphany that sheds light on everything that has gone before. Few of these stories function in that way and, for me, the ones that are least bubble-like are the most successful. That is to say, the stories, like Pritchett's, where readers arrive at the end but, instead of having the impression that something has finished, have the sensation of having been plunged briefly into the river of these characters' lives and pulled out again, (the lives continuing to flow on, regardless), work best for me.


  1. If "English" refers to a country, how did the Joyces get in there? If to a language, how did Penguin decide that no Americans, Canadians etc., etc. made the cut?

    I should have said that "William the Conqueror" was all about the efficiency of the Indian government staff under difficult conditions. (As are a large number of his stories.) His stories are definitely worth following up, and I can think of a number that are much better than that one.

    1. Look, you were the ones who wanted independence, (your concerns about inclusion don't seem to spread as far as my fair land, I notice - and, of course, I'm even going to get into whether or not English is the language we both use.)Your impression of the Kipling story makes me laugh - it's partly about that, I suppose, but surely not entirely. It would be very unentertaining if that were all there was to it, I'd have thought.

    2. Naturally I started at home and with a neighbor. Then the prospect of enumerating all the countries between here and there that have or have had excellent writers in English reduced me to "etc. etc." (Should one count Karen Blixen under Denmark or Kenya?) I did miss New Zealand's representative, I see.

      Certainly there are other things going on in WtC. But in Kipling the man of action (the engineer) is always superior to the man of the classroom or office (William's former suitors, her brother), and the man of more action, the soldier, is usually superior to him. As to the Englishman as against the lesser nations, well, that hardly need be discussed. The sergeant of the 1914 BEF who told his men that "Wogs begin at Calais" probably had read little of Kipling, but he shared an attitude, and even at a lesser level a gift for expressing it.

    3. I realised, as I read your comment, that, coming from a farming family on one side and a naval one on the other, I have at some point absorbed the notion that the man of action (which can include someone who follows intellectual pursuits, provided, when push comes to shove that they can do practical things) is superior and never questioned it. I suppose the sergeant's comment could be seen as just another version of Metternich's "Der Balkan fängt am Rennweg an"