Tomato Cain and Other Stories, by Nigel Kneale (1949)

Nigel Kneale is best known now for his novels and screenplays featuring the alien-battling scientist, Dr. Quartermass, but his first book, the collection Tomato Cain and Other Stories was considered remarkable enough to merit a foreword by Elizabeth Bowen:

Within the last few years, readers have become less shy of the short story. That this form of fiction is also a form of art had fairly long ago been recognised; what is more important, from the point of view of popular favour, is that the high potential of entertainment in a good collection of stories may now be seen. There exists, too, a growing body of people who no longer turn to a book in search of “escape” but are genuinely interested in writing—who value craftsmanship and react to originality. To such readers, the short story—in its present rather fascinating position half-way between tradition and experiment—must particularly appeal.

The experimentary story-writer, lately, has in fact been given a good deal of rope: that the best use has invariably been made of this I cannot say. There has been a danger that, because of its literary privilege, the short story might fall under a certain literary blight, and become an example of too much prose draped around an insufficiently vital feeling or a trumped-up, insufficiently strong idea. The declared reaction against plot —as constraining, rigid or artificial—was once good up to a point, but possibly went too far: the fact that a story must be a story was overlooked. There are now
signs of an equally strong (and, I think, healthy) reaction against plotlessness. Of this Nigel Kneale’s stories are symptomatic.

Indeed, in one sense, these tales in Tomato Cain show a return to the great main stream of the English story tradition—with which one associates Kipling, Wells, Saki, Somerset Maugham. When I say that Nigel Kneale’s stories have plot, I mean that they make their effect by the traditional elements of invention, tension, a certain amazement and, ultimately, surprise. Like his great predecessors, he is impersonal, not using his art either for self-expression or exhibition. His art is the art of narration—the world’s oldest. He knows how to rouse interest; and, which is still rarer, knows how to hold it. He is adept to giving a situation a ?nal twist. These Tomato Cain stories vary in quality, as stories in any collection must; but, personally, I ?nd the author guilty of not one single story which bogs down.

The writer of stories of this type must be bold; he disdains the shelter of ambiguity; it is essential that each of his pieces should come off. He is gambling—in an honourable sense, for are not Kipling, Wells, Saki, Somerset Maugham gamblers also?—on the originality of his imagination, on his power to grip, on the persuasiveness of his manner of story-telling. It might be too much to say that all the world’s classic stories have had an element of the preposterous about them; one might safely say that any memorable story carried something which had to be put across. A part of the fascination of Nigel Kneale’s story-telling is that he takes long chances ; a part of the satisfaction of it is that in almost all cases he justifies the risks.

This writer is a young Manxman. He has grown up in, and infuses into his stories, an atmosphere which one can cut with a knife. He is not dependent on regionalism—not all of his work has an Isle of Man setting—but it would appear that he draws strength from it: his work at its best has the ?avour, raciness, “body” that one associates with the best of the output from Ireland, Wales, Brittany, and the more remote, untouched and primitive of the States of America. He turns for his inspiration to creeks in which life runs deep, to pockets in which life accumulates, deeply queer. Is the Talking Mongoose a sore subject with the Isle of Man? That interesting animal—of which the investigations of the late Harry Price never entirely disposed—might well be the denizen of a Nigel Kneale story. Has he not made frogs avengers; has he not made a deformed duck a tragedian?

In far-of days [he says, at the opening of “The Tarroo-Ushtey”] before the preachers and the school-masters came, the island held a good many creatures besides people and beasts. The place swarmed with monsters. A man would think twice before answering his cottage door on a windy night, in dread of a visit from his own ghost. The high mountain roads rang in the darkness with the thunderous tiffs of the bugganes, which had unspeakable shapes and heads bigger than houses; while a walk along the seashore after the sun had set was to invite the misty appearance of a tarroo-ushtey, in the likeness of a monstrous bull. . . . At harvest-time the hairy trollman, the phynodderee, might come springing out of his elderberry tree to assist the reaping, to the farmer’s dismay; for the best-intentioned of the beings were no more helpful than interfering neighbours. . . .

This is the background atmosphere of one group of Kneale’s stories; call them the local pieces. “Tomato Cain” itself, “The Excursion,” and “The Putting-away of Uncle Quaggin” have (for instance) a naturalism not unworthy of Maupassant : the supernatural never raises its head, but eminent human queerness is at its height.

It is the function of every emerging writer to create, and stamp, his own universe. This Nigel Kneale has done. In his universe, love, in the sentimental or social sense, plays almost no part; but the passions stalk like those island monsters. Like the unfortunate bungalow in “Minuke,” his characters are wrenched and battered and heaved up. What is remarkable, given the themes of many of the stories, is that the writer so seldom—if, indeed, ever ?—crosses the bounds into extravagance; his forte is a sort of control, restraint. His Quiet Mr. Evans, tale of an injured husband’s revenge in a ?sh-and-chip shop, threatens at one point to approach in horror H. G. Wells’ “The Cone,” but the last twist gives a pathetic-ironic end. It would be fair to say that his children and animal stories, with their focus on suffering
(e.g. “The Photagraph,” “Oh, Mirror, Mirror,” “The Stocking,” Flo,” and the semi-fantastic “Curphey’s Follower”) most dangerously approach the unbearable. It may, however, be found that Nigel Kneale knows how to relax any too great realism at the saving moment.

To the sheer build, to the something better than ingenuity of the best of the stories, attention should be drawn. “Peg” and “Bini and Bettine” would seem to me to be masterpieces in a genre particularly this writer’s own. This is a ?rst book: Nigel Kneale is at the opening of his career ; he is still making a trial of his powers. To an older writer, the just not overcrowded effect of inventive richness, the suggestion of potentialities still to be explored, and of alternatives pending, cannot but be attractive. That the general reader will react to Nigel Kneale’s stories, and that the perceptive reader will relish
what in new in his contribution to ?ction, I feel sure.

Bowen’s comparison of Kneale and Maugham proved prophetic, as Tomato Cain went on to be selected as the Somerset Maugham Award winner for 1950. It’s been out of print for decades, but if you can read Scots Gaelic, you can find it in print as Paart Dy Skeealyn Elley in a translation published in 2014.


Tomato Cain and Other Stories, by Nigel Kneale
London: Collins, 1949

Selected Modern Short Stories, edited by Alan Steele (1937)

Selected Modern Short Stories–the first of several collections that editor Alan Steele compiled for Penguin in the late 1930s–offers a good illustration of the random nature of literary fate. Let’s take at look at the authors listed on the cover:

John Hampson

Hampson’s first-published novel, Saturday Night at the Greyhound (1931) was a surprise best-seller for Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and is back in print now, thanks to the ever-diligent Valancourt Books. It’s considerably harder to find his short stories, however. Only two were ever published i book form, and this in the very scarce Two Stories: The Mare’s Nest and The Long Shadow (1931), hand-printed in an edition of 250 by radical publisher Charles Lahr.

Helen Simpson

Simpson’s historical romances, such as Under Capricorn, were very popular during their time, but are now out of print outside her native Australia. You can, however, find her novel, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935), available on the Internet Archive. She published just one collection, The Baseless Fabric (1925), well before this anthology. The one copy I could find for sale goes for $1000. When this was published, one reviewer wrote of it, “… eleven profoundly imagined creations here contained, each one, perfect in the exact balance and unfailing accuracy of its veiled suggestion, concerned with the potencies for good or evil latent in the invisible realm which separates the conscious senses from the surrounding world.”

H. E. Bates

Bates enjoyed a pretty consistent and happy balance of critical and popular esteem throughout his career and it has held on to this day. A good share of his novels and short story collections are in print, but you can also find his collection, The Enchantress (1961), for free on the Internet Archive.

Martin Armstrong

Armstrong’s work is long out of print, which is one reason why I wrote about his Selected Stories (1951) a few months ago. You can find a snippet of his work online in a throw-away compilation titled, What is Happiness? (1939), in which he and other English writers such as J. B. Priestley and Storm Jameson offered their answers to this question. I like Armstrong’s sly approach to avoiding an actual answer:

Before we can be truly happy we must gain control of our minds. How am I to do so?

The answer is simple: by obeying the Greek maxim, ‘Know thyself.’ Good! We are almost, it seems, at the end of our inquiry. Only one question remains: how am I to get to know myself? Ah! Now you’re asking. Saints and philosophers have been engaged on this simple question for some thousands of years but, unhappily, the answer is not yet to hand.

H. A. Manhood

H. A. Manhood was considered one of the best short story writers of the 1930s, but in the mid-1950s he gave up writing entirely and retired to an abandoned railway carriage in a field in West Sussex, where he spent the next decades brewing his own cider and attempting to get by as much as possible on a subsistence basis. Thanks to the Sundial Press, a collection of his stories, Life Be Still!, is now available, but you can also find his Selected Stories (1947)

T. O. Beachcroft

Reviewing Beachcroft’s second story collection, Graham Greene wrote that “Mr. Beachcroft is likely to become, after Mr. H. E. Bates, the most distinguished short-story writer in this country,” but unlike Bates, his work has disappeared without a trace. He didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry until I wrote one earlier today. Reviewing one of his later collections in The Spectator, Stevie Smith wrote:

Mr. Beachcroft’s talent is disarming. One thinks: thank heavens just a simple tale, with people one knows and bits of scenery and a bit of human feeling, not much more, but very agreeable. It is not difficult to put the reader in this pleasantly superior frame of mind, and having got the donkey where You want him, the creature is in your power…. Simplicity is the word for Mr. Beachcroft’s stories, but it is a poet’s simplicity, the most subtle in the world.

Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can enjoy The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft (1946), which I will cover in more depth soon.

Liam O’Flaherty

Liam O’Flaherty will probably always have at least his classic novel, The Informer, in print, and his collection, The Wounded Cormorant was a feature of high school reading lists for decades. You can also find The Informer online at the Internet Archive, but for his stories, look for the exemplary collection, The Stories of Liam O’Flaherty (1956), at the Open Library.

L. A. G. Strong

Several of Strong’s novels are back in print thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing’s fine series of solid middlebrow novels and story collections from the 1930s-1960s. None of his numerous short story books are in print, but you can enjoy a healthy sample in his Travellers: Thirty-One Selected Stories (147), available from the Internet Archive.

Malachi Whitaker

As Malachi Whitaker, Yorkshire housewife Marjorie Whitaker became known as the “Bradford Chekhov” and was considered perhaps the finest woman writer of short stories between Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen, but her work felt out of print for several decades until her collection, The Crystal Fountain, and autobiography, And So Did I, were released by Paladin Press in the 1990s. Unfortunately, they dropped from sight again after than. Just recently, however, Persephone Books added to their growing list of rediscovered by releasing Journey Home and Other Stories.

Frank O’Connor

O’Connor is safely ensconced as the leading Irish short story writer to follow Joyce–as demonstrated by the fact that the introduction to his Collected Stories (1981) was written by none other than famed Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann.

William Plomer

Plomer’s is one of those names that fans of neglected books will recognize, as one or other of his books–whether his South African novel Turbott Wolfe or his English novel Museum Pieces or his eccentric family memoir, Curious Relations–often shows up on lists such as those from Antaeus or Tin House. His short stories, however, vanished decades ago. Luckily, you can find a worthy sample on the Internet Archive in his collection Four Countries (1949), which includes stories set in Africa, Japan, Greece, and England. In his introduction, Plomer put himself solidly in the traditionalist camp when it came to short stories:

We rightly expect a story to have a point, and this generally means that we expect it to be dramatic. A short story must let us into the secrets of other people’s lives, and unless it lets us into their lives at a moment of crisis, it is unlikely to have much point or to be dramatic. The crisis may be a small one, but a crisis there must be. This crisis must engage the reader’s imagination, and it must illuminate some new or unfamiliar aspect of the human predicament, or some familiar aspect in a new way. As for the manner in which this is done, there are infinite possibilities, but it must be adroit.

Rhys Davies

Welsh writer Rhys Davies is still popular among his fellow countrymen thanks to the Library of Wales series, but mostly overlooked elsewhere. A large sample of his work can be found online, however, in The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies on the Internet Archive. Davies took a measured view of the lot of the short story writer:

Short stories are a luxury which only those writers who fall in love with them can afford to cultivate. To such a writer they yield the purest enjoyment; they become a privately elegant craft allowing, within very strict confines, a wealth of idiosyncrasies. Compared with the novel, that great public park so often complete with draughty spaces, noisy brass band and unsightly litter, the enclosed and quiet short story garden is of small importance, and never has been much more…. The short story gives the release of a day off, when something happened which one remembers with a smile or a start of interest, with a pang or a pause of fear.

The Door in the Wall, by Oliver La Farge (1966)

I picked out a yellow-jacketed copy of Oliver La Farge’s posthumous collection of short stories, The Door in the Wall, from a striking display in the window of Any Amount of Books, one of the few remaining used bookstores on Charing Cross Road, when in London recently. I’ve never learned just why so many British publishers put out books with bright yellow paper dust jackets in the 1950s and 1960s, but someone in the store had the bright (sorry) idea to collect a couple dozen of them and put them together on a display in one of their windows. Still on the hunt for short story collections, I spotted and quickly grabbed this book, La Farge’s third, published by Victor Gollancz in the U.K. and by Houghton Mifflin in the U.S..

The La Farge family’s contributions can be found all over the records of U. S. cultural history. His grandfather John La Farge was a distinguished painter and muralist; his father Christopher was part of one of the prominent architectural firms that shaped the face of American downtowns around the turn of the last century; his brother Christopher guaranteed his place in neglected American literature with a series of verse novels; and his son Peter was one of Dylan’s generation of American folksingers. And if that wasn’t enough, La Farge was named for his great-great-grandfather, the naval hero of the War of 1815, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.

Yet Oliver La Farge was never one to rest on his family laurels. Instead, he early on discovered a passion for anthropology, and in particular for the native Americans of the Southwest. In his foreword to this collection, La Farge’s New Yorker editor, recalls visiting the writer at his home in Santa Clara, New Mexico, where La Farge had immersed himself in Hopi and Navaho culture. La Farge’s first novel, Laughing Boy (1929), a Pulitzer Prize winner, was set in the Najaho territories in New Mexico, and he remained an advocate for their rights, even serving as president of the Association of American Indian Affairs in the mid-1950s. You can see a video clip of La Farge as spokesman for the Association from the Longines Chronoscope on YouTube (link). (Indeed, the first story in the collection, “The Creation of John Mandeville,” make a passing reference to the horrific experience that David Grann recently chronicled in his best-selling Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI: “Bill asked why the Indians wouldn’t sell their oil, and Applegate said it was partly that they knew what oil had done to some of the Oklahoma Indians….”)

Anthropology and the study of native peoples of the Americas is at the heart of The Door in the Wall. La Farge’s protagonists are almost all anthropologists and academics, drawn to field work and usually never less than half-frustrated when cooped up in a classroom or office. As such, the whole tone of this book could strike some readers as dry or even dessicated. They are men (exclusively) who are driven more by intellectual curiosity (and sometimes superiority) than by emotion, and not one of them would ever be likely to utter the words, “I feel …” unless they really meant to say, “I think ….”

But they were also men whose work depended upon their ability to keep their eyes and ears (and minds) open. Maxwell recalls La Farge telling him,

You can behave very much as you would anywhere else–with certain limitations. It goes without saying that you don’t ask questions about tribal customs and ceremonies. And since they don’t know you, I think it is probably a good idea not to ask questions at all. Keep your eyes open, and see what there is to see. And don’t try to charm them. It throws them off balance if you rush in and try to make friends with them immediately…. So you wait. You don’t do anything until they have had a chance to sense who you are, the aura around you.

For my part, I liked them and the book. It fed a certain nostalgia I have for a time when a show with a name like “Longines Chronoscope” could take up air time with a geeky guy in glasses like Oliver La Farge explaining and defending the interests of people with almost no political or economic power or influence whatsoever. La Farge was not naive, and he would never pretend that selflessness isn’t often a flimsy cover for selfishness and ego. And he was not blind to considerations that are just now getting the attention they deserve: “His tone made what he told of himself seem unusually intimate and she knew, as a woman can know, that there was only a narrow line between that intimacy and another that she did not want at all.” I mean–just how La Farge expressed this shows a combination of insight and discretion that makes me wish we had a few more grown-ups like him around today.


The Door in the Wall, by Oliver La Farge
New York City: Houghton Mifflin, 1966

Private Opinion: A Commonplace-Book, by Alan Pryce-Jones (1936)

There isn’t necessarily a template for a commonplace book, which Webster’s defines as “a book of memorabilia” and Wikipedia as “essentially a scrapbook.” But even if there were one, Alan Pryce-Jones’ Private Opinion wouldn’t follow it. Pryce-Jones, who is probably best known for editing the Time Literary Supplement from 1948 to 1959, was a precocious 28 when he published what he called a commonplace book but what today would more likely be labelled a biblio-memoir.

Although Pryce-Jones follows a roughly chronological path through his reading, he is not averse to occasional detours into fugues and fantasies, and ends the book with a what seems to be a fictional sketch about the visit of a merchant freighter and its small contingent of cruise passengers to a port along the Caribbean coast of South America. And there are more pages devoted to Pryce-Jones’ experiences of childhood, school, and visits to France, the Caribbean and Africa as a young man than there are to books. But he still manages to whet the reader’s appetite with his descriptions of a number of remarkable books:

A Narrative ofProceedings in Venezuela in South America in the years 1819 and 1820, by George Laval Chesterton

“… not only extremely readable, but gratifying in the highest degree to two snobberies : that of little-known events, and that of little-known places, Chesterton had lively reactions to circumstances and does not boggle at what he found: which was that the thousand men under Colonel English’s command—“From his extraordinary torpidity and supineness, I have often wondered how he could have summoned up sufficient resolution”–would have been better employed fighting for the Spaniards than against them. Their adventures were vivid, and their privations useless; except to give the Judge-Advocate that occasion to write a salt and fascinating book.

“Scraps of knowledge emerge–the kind of scraps that makes Southey’s Commonplace Book such excellent reading: such as that the people of Angostura fought all diseases alike by means of hot lemonade. Obscure names are used with familiarity: The Patriot General, Urdaneta ; the island of Margarita, celebrated for its cotton hammocks. The reader is warmed by a pleasant feeling of petty triumph over the next man. 1820 Venezuela is in a sense pocketed.”

Burton-Agnes Hall, from A series of picturesque views of seats of the noblemen and gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1
A series of picturesque views of seats of the noblemen and gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, by Reverend Francis Orpen Morris (1840)

“I bought the Reverend F. O. Morris’s Seats of the Noblemen and Gentry, in six volumes, on the Dublin quays. It was exactly the place for buying such a book, for Ireland is, in spite of itself, an island of country houses; and about them, more than elsewhere, clings the forlorn, yet still challenging, air in which the Reverend F. O. Morris’s pages are suffused. The day before, I had been to Rusborough, a very beautiful house, at that time uninhabited, in the Wicklow Hills. Lord Milltown’s trunks, and his hatboxes, stood in a dressing-room. His music was yellowing on the piano, and his writing-paper in the library. For Lord Milltown had been long dead and his peerage extinct; without the house admitting it. The ornamental plaster-work was crumbling ; and the garden terraces were indistinguishable; but we could still detect the authentic note: the Jennings sanitary fittings, encased in mahogany, with the essential pull-up handle instead of a chain; the assortment of expensive boot-jacks; the one bath, with brown tear-stains under the taps; and the heavily furnished writing-tables, with letterweights, little sponges, silver-handled brushes for wetting the envelopes, and boxes in dark-green leather for india-rubber bands. The fascination of views of country-houses lies not in their beauty but in the surprises they contain. In finding an enormous excruciating Italianate palace of which nobody has ever heard. In discovering that the families who now prefer living in a mews flat and spending their money at le Touquet, possessed a William Kent house until the other day. In picturing, says Caen Wood Tower, “a beautiful edifice … erected by its late proprietor … On either side of the dining-room chimney-piece are windows looking into a fernery, with fountains. The upper portion of the windows above the transom is fitted with stained glass of a geometrical pattern. In the windows of the billiard room are representations of various out-door sports and pastimes, as hunting, cricket, archery, etc., also in stained glass.”

London Promenade, by William Gaunt (1930)

“When I was up at Oxford, J. took me from de Beauvoir Town to the Elephant and Castle, from Hounslow to Greenwich, looking at churches, and obscure squares, and fragments of Regency town planning. But I was never again able to make any coherent picture of London by day; and probably the reason why I like London Promenade is that it moves in the London of bars and theatres and narrow streets which, even by day, lurk in a kind of private evening. That London has kept for me a little flutter of excitement. For years my home was in London, but my home life had no particular urban associations. I walked into London when I slammed the door in the evening, and I left London, exultantly late at night, when I went home; from the Lyons in New Oxford Street where the cashier sat in an octagonal aluminium font, or from Claridges, or from a basement far darker than D.’s and from people of more doubtful artistry. It is provoking to reflect that anything so commonplace can have been, and for so long, so exceedingly amusing.”

The Cuckoo Clock, by Mrs. Molesworth (1895)

“I hope Mrs. Molesworth is still read. A few years ago Herr Baby was out of print; but a good many nurseries seem still to be faithful to The Cuckoo Clock. Like all good children’s books, hers give an intense pleasure to grown-ups ; but they offer children what I take to be the harvest of surrealisme: the distillation of an object into an atmosphere. For queer events in themselves leave a child perfectly cold; exciting events also. Without what can be called a high dream-power, they only amuse grown-ups. The Cuckoo Clock has that power. It creates a secret untransmittable picture: the turn of an ancient staircase in the evening, a dark labyrinth of wainscoted corridors. I cannot remember any of the events in the book, but I can move in its atmosphere at will. Even when it first was read to me, the events were less important than their overtones; and I believe all imaginative children only use books as a lever to set their private world at work.”

The Season: A Satire, by Alfred Austin (1861)

“Short of very good books, I know nothing which gives as much pleasure as very bad books. Everyone has his pet bad book, therefore; and I have mine. But although it might be fairly easy game I never find anybody else to have read it except a few friends to whom, with all the emotion of entrusting a thousand pounds to a financier, I have entrusted it. Nor would my really bad book be much easier to replace than a thousand pounds. There is a disconcerting power of volatility about (say) the Book of the Month to be reckoned with. If you do not catch it during the Month it disappears. For example, I am in constant pursuit of a new work by Dr. Cronin. And always it was the book last month. Short of hiring a man to wait in Henrietta Street for the next moment of apparition I shall forever be deprived of a very real pleasure.

It was, however, upon The Season: A Satire by Alfred Austin, that I proposed to write. On considering it again, there can be no doubt that it is a very unusually bad book. It is supremely, mystically, bad. Most of it is not bad in the way of being funny. It
is just bad. Like this:

O blessed moment! … Duns! Detractors! Fate I
Hit me your hardest—but I dine at eight.
My thoughts are stolen? half my verses halt?
Well, very likely: please to pass the salt.
Jones won’t accept your bills: he funks the risk.
Does he? What matter? Potage a la bisque!

“There are, however, a few notably ridiculous passages. There are two passages I am particularly fond of:

Romantic boys! be still. Will angry names
Like “battered beast” annul an Earldom’s claims?
Life is not wholly sentiment and stars:
Venus wed Mercury as well as Mars.
Hush your lewd tattle ! seek your slighted beds!
A cornet waltzes, but a colonel weds.

“And another, which goes further to prove that Alfred Austin, like others of our Laureates, had some trouble in compelling the English language into verse:

What! … So they say … Bah! Nonsense … But it’s true:
True, sure enough–will lay you ten to two.
Jack saw the brief, Respondent’s name endorsed …
Great God in heaven ! Our Blanche to be divorced!

“But this badness is perhaps a little too showy. It is a greater feat to have kept up the solider badness of the remaining seventy pages. Or to have invented the bold retort, the English equivalent of Excelsior!, the exclamation at once practical and vigorous, Potage a la bisque!”

Pryce-Jones peppers his compilation with liberal doses of observation and opinion:

… in no country but England are children so strangely brought up. For the commonsense of their upbringing goes in inverse ratio to the means of their parents. Think of it. They are sent away from home as early as possible, yet buttoned back into home life as tightly as possible for observation during their weeks of freedom. They are segregated into sexes, and treated by paid supervisors as little beasts to be kept quiet, to be mechanized for the general convenience; in any case, to be ordered about, at the pain (even if it is only a constant threat) of birch and cane and strap and cuff. The aim of all this is clearly stated to be a prosperous position exactly on the inconspicuous average line of attainment. The typical parent hopes that his child will be as rich and as dull and as anonymous as may be. If you suggest that the child should learn foreign languages, discover its own tastes, knock about a bit, he will stretch out his hands to the gas-fire as though a fatal draught were in the room. If you regret that the eminently sensible Lycee-Gymnasium systems do not exist for the unfortunate Anglo-Saxon, he will not know what those systems imply. An English well-to-do child is first something pretty, handed over, almost absolutely, to a nurse; then something problematical, handed over to a group for solution; then promoted from group to group, until, at the age of eighteen, it is thought sufficiently house-trained to fall under the direct influence of its parents. And yet: there must be a great deal to be said for a system which induces such excellent results. The fittest survive; and their path is made considerably easier by the number who succumb to entire mediocrity.


Private Opinion: A Commonplace-Book, by Alan Pryce-Jones
London: Cobden and Sanderson, 1936

Rope Dancer, by M. J. Fitzgerald (1986)

Many of the stories in M. J. Fitzgerald’s collection, Rope Dancer, read like unsettling dreams: vivid enough to provoke deep feelings but too full of bizarre, illogical transitions and events to be part of waking life.

In “Mystery Story,” a woman finds herself returned, again and again, to the compartment of a passenger train, where strange, dreamlike things happen. She finds a book in the luggage rack, a purple volume with the title, “Mystery Story,” on the spine. She begins to read it: “Pero cant credan freshli speciel omana duet whore ass.” And thought passes through her mind and she senses something pass by in the corridor:

Ghennema dashed to the door and pulled it back: the passage was deserted, except for a black hat. It sat across the centre of the corridor, looking as if its owner had simply melted underneath it, and it was feeling guilty.–Napoleon’s hat–she thought stepping close to it, and picked it up. She wanted to throw it out, it did not belong in the train, but her struggle to open the ventilation panels above the windows was unsuccessful. With a shrug to dismiss her unease, she carried the hat back into the carriage, laid it on her lap and stretched her legs on to the opposite seat: the hat was a cat to the touch, and she continued to stroke it mechanically for a while.

In other cases, however, the experience described is more like a nightmare than a dream. “A man and a woman met and became lovers,” Fitzgerald’s first story, “Creases,” begins. The woman thrills to the man’s touch, and soon, “they found their love was magic.” But it’s also clearly an unequal relationship. She learns to transform herself to his changing wants: “When weary of her smallness, she grew large breasts into which he buried himself, and when that ceased to satisfy him she became a child and even a man.”

Inevitably, the man becomes tired of the woman. He dislikes “most the tacit assumption that because she loved him he must somehow love her too.” And so, when he has to go away on a long journey, he decides to put her away–literally, into a cardboard box. After some trying, he manages to fit her in. “Quickly and deftly, as if fixing a set of batteries to a transistor, he fitted the top and took a large elastic band from his desk to secure it shut.” He then goes out to celebrate, bringing back another woman to help him carry the box into the attic.

Years later, he returns, wealthy and successful. He decides to look for the box and the woman again, and eventually locates them in a warehouse, his house having been sold years before. He takes the box back to his big new house, takes the woman out, and wraps her in a blanket. Eventually, she is able to move, but her body is “bruised and permanently puckered and pleated.” Though he is able to walk with her in the park, “She did not open her eyes again.”

In the midst of the torrent of news about women coming forward about their abuse and harassment by men, “Crease,” seems more like a powerful metaphor for the tendency of many men to objectify women, even to the point of wanting to pack them away in boxes for years or even forever. Inside the box, the woman tries to accept her position and find comfort, but soon finds it impossible to find relief. As much as she wants to accommodate herself to the man’s wishes, she cannot avoid becoming permanently damaged. And, having forgotten her and his abuse for years, the man tries to take her out of storage and carry on as if nothing has happened.

The danger underlying the treatment of too many women by too many men runs like an invisible thread through many of Fitzgerald’s stories. In “A Landscape with Walls,” a woman finds herself irresistibly drawn to a man’s touch, and it leads her to sleep with hundreds of men. After a while, though, as she makes love with a man, she also finds that she is walking around, picking up bricks and laying them out, first into a line and then stacked up to form a wall.

This experience recurs, growing more intense and exaggerated. She finds herself running around in a landscape reminiscent of black-and-white horror films, wearing a mason’s apron of stiff dark leather, collecting and piling up the bricks. Soon, she seems to be surrounded by endless brick walls each time she goes to bed with a man: “But there were so many: thousands more than she had made, they extended and went on and seemed to multiply so that when Briony thought she has nearing the end, the next time the horizon seemed to have been pushed further back and countless more stood silent and black against the white set.”

Rope Dancer was the first work published by Fitzgerald, daughter of Robert Fitzgerald, whose translations of Homer were the most successful of their generation. She published one novel, Concertina, a year later, but has concentrated on poetry and translations since then. It’s our loss, as she has a remarkable talent for creating unforgettable and disturbing images, as well as a confidence in manipulating the interface between reader and writer in a way that reminds me at times of Italo Calvino.

This is most noticeable in the story, “The Fire Eater,” in which she begins by telling us that a friend’s description of “an American woman with two girl children and a man friend who is a fire-eater” leads her mind to think, “story possibility, story possibility.” She then proceeds to tell the story, while also telling us that she is writing the story: “At this moment, the pen is winning, but the war is not won.”

She weaves a tale about an American spinster, visiting Rome, who finds herself fascinated with the street performer doing fire-eating tricks for crowds in the Piazza Navona and accidentally befriends a young girl who seems to be wandering, perhaps homeless, around the square. But Fitzgerald also admits, “I am not interested in Barbara Grimes or the fire-eater: were I to meet the actual acquaintances of my friend who correspond to these labels, I would be, at best, indifferent.” What interests her is simply the experiment of putting them into a fiction: “There is some kind of mystery in that name and that action, and I want them together to see how they react to each other.”

And when the American woman meets and falls in love with the fire-eater and with the girl, Fitzgerald tells us that “the mystery lies in what you do, the mystery is reading, not writing: it is while you read that possibility is limitless and Barbara is real, though she may exist without you, like a collapsed puppet.” For then the woman finds that her imagined romance is, indeed, a fiction: the man and the girl turn out to live with a lively, blonde American woman–the real Barbara Grimes of her friend’s description?

All I know is that I wish M. J. Fitzgerald would continue performing such feats of fictional legerdemain.

Because I found “Creases” such a memorable piece, I took the liberty to scan it and have saved it here (Link). Its five short pages offer a profound perspective on the stories finally gaining the attention they deserve.


Rope Dancer, by M. J. Fitzgerald
London: Picador/Pan Books, 1986

Croatian Tales of Long Ago, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (1922)

From the cover of Croatian Tales of Long Ago


One day late, but in keeping with the spirit of Halloween, which reminds us each year of the didactic benefits of scaring the crap out of kids, I want to celebrate a fine example of fairy tales told with the gloves off. As Bruno Bettelheim (perhaps somewhat plagiaristically) reminded us, uniformly pleasant and positive stories have their place in children’s literature, but so do terror, violence, and horrible-looking monsters with sharp teeth: “‘Safe’ stories mention neither death nor aging, the limits to our existence, nor the wish for eternal life. The fairy tale, by contrast, confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.” And while Bettelheim’s argument may have been weakened by the facts of his credentials and practices that have come to light since the publication of The Uses of Enchantment, there is an undeniable edge of terror in many folk tale traditions.

In an article in The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, David Boudinot wrote, “Teaching fear through fairy tales is a proven method of helping children learn about safety, and it can help improve a child’s judgement and critical thinking skills.” By this standard, Ivana Brlić-Mažurani&cacute deserves a posthumous plaque from the folks at the National Safety Council for her collection, Croatian Tales of Long Ago available in its English translation by F. S. Copeland on the Internet Archive (link). Here are a few excerpts to demonstrate how these tales can help spice up the endless flow of Paddington pablum:

“Come along, brother, let’s get rid of grandfather. You have weapons. Wait for him by the well and kill him.”

There was the poor little fairy Curlylocks caught in the bowels of the earth! She was buried alive in that vast grave, and perhaps would never again see those golden fields for which she had set out, and all because she would not go straight on by the way they had intended, but would loiter and turn aside to the right and to the left to pry into God’s secrets!

Through fog and twilight ran Reygoch with the children in his arms and the terrified flocks at his heels in frantic flight—all running towards the dyke. And out to meet them flowed the Black Banewater, killing and drowning as it flowed. It is terribly strong, is that water. Stronger than Reygoch? Who knows? Will it sweep away Reygoch, too? Will it drown those poor herd boys and girls also, and must the dear little Fairy Curlylocks die—and she as lovely as a star?

Already the soldiers were battering at the entrance. Heavy clubs hammered on the doors and portals, banging and clanging till all the courts and passages of the soot-blacked house rang again, as though a host from the nethermost Pit were beating on the gates of Oleg the Warden.

Suddenly the Mountain rang with the most awful noise, so that the branches swayed and the leaves trembled on the trees, and the rocks and cliffs re-echoed down to the deepest cavern. It was Belleroo roaring.

So now the Sun thundered forth his anger. All the land fell silent with fear; axes and clubs were dropped in terror as the Sun thundered.

Illustration by Vladimir Kirin from “Croatian Tales of Long Ago”

The Copeland translation, published in 1922 by Frederick A. Stokes Company, is further spiced up with intricate paintings and black-and-white illustrations by Croatian artist Vladimir Kirin. The painting of the lion, bear, and wolf attacking the dragon—speaking of educating through fear and violence—from the book’s cover, however, is by the American illustrator, M. M. Williams (and depicts an event that doesn’t occur in any of the tales).

 


Croatian Tales of Long Ago, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, translated by F. S. Copeland
New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922

“In Sleep,” by Robert Kotlowitz (1954)

Man Sleeping in Car - Vivian Maier -VM1955W02739 – New York, NY, 1955
Man Sleeping in Car — Vivian Maier, New York City, 1955

In Sleep

What do I see in my sleep?
A steady seepage of life
in dreams
that are of no use
to a practical body.

I awake like you,
sapped by a watchful reality,
defined by a soft-boiled egg.
Today’s newspaper
tucked under my arm,
swats invisible enemies on the fleeing subway.

Time, then, is transformed
from uptown to downtown,
and through its metamorphosis
I move into the material of life.
It catches fast,
holding in its swell
the sweating molecules of the morning,
the darting enzymes of eternity.

I watch, I wonder,
and wondering,
am caught in perpetual bombardments
of anxious demands, urgent moments,
that, like dreams after all,
streak the illumined air
with startling beauty:
the heart’s silhouette
of desire, sorrow and eager mortality.

This poem comes from Discovery no. 3, the third of the brief run of Discovery, a paperback magazine edited by Vance Bourjaily and published by Pocket Books between 1953 and 1955. Although Kotlowitz was, at the time, trying to write a novel, he ended up going into editing and, later and somewhat by accident, public broadcasting. He did, however, write four novels, beginning with Somewhere Else in 1972. His memoir of combat as a U.S. Army rifleman in World War Two, including the skirmish following the D-Day invasion in which virtually his entire platoon was killed—Before Their Time—was published in 1999 and is still in print. His son, Alex, is a journalist who wrote the award-winning account of life in the Chicago projects, There Are No Children Here (1992).

The Smoking Mountain, by Kay Boyle (1951; 1963)

Cover of 1963 edition of The Smoking Mountain
In 1948, the American writer Kay Boyle left France, where she had spent most of the previous 25 years to live in Germany. Germany was then an occupied country, split between the Soviets, French, British, and Americans into four zones of military administration. Whether she was making amends for sitting out France’s own time of occupation in the safety of America, or spurred by the call of The New Yorker editor Harold Ross for “fiction from Germany,” or just interested in a unique place in time, Boyle was to find in the experience the inspiration to write the dozen stories and articles collected in The Smoking Mountain.

Boyle took her title from a passage by the German novelist and anti-Nazi journalist, Theodor Plievier: “…the people ceased to exist as a people and became nothing but fuel for the monstrous, smoking mountain, the individual became nothing but wood, peat,
fuel oil, and finally a black flake spewed up out of the flames.” The Germany she witnessed was barely beginning to recover. Most city centers were still fields of rubble. Gaunt men, women, and children still tramped along the roads, either fleeing from the Soviet zone or trying to return to homes and families they left during the war. As William Shirer wrote in his foreword to the 1963 edition of The Smoking Mountain, the Germany of 1948 “is not a pretty place for human beings, either the conquered or the conquerors. The cities are largely a mass of ruins, the rubble piled high wherever you look. The Germans, who have lost another great war they expected to win, are understandably still in a daze.”

Frankfurt, 1947
Frankfurt, 1947

Many of the men, former soldiers often returning from POW camps outside Germany seemed more like ghosts than living beings. One of Boyle’s Americans describes an itinerant ex-POW digging up potatoes for a few pfennig as “a figure so eloquent in its suffering, so dramatically conceived, that it might have been a portrait done in sombre oils, the dark, despairing eyes, not of a living man but of an El Greco head, following him now from where the canvas was placed upon a museum’s shadowy wall.” Another finds it difficult to enjoy the folk dances being performed for a party of American occupation VIPs when he notices how close they are to starvation:

It seemed to him that the threads of their necks must snap in two, unable to bear the weight of the fleshless skulls they carried, and that their bones would pierce the carnival lace and tinsel of their disguise, and expose them for the skeletons they were. He could hear the girl’s hand striking the tambourine with which she danced, and he could not bring himself to turn his head and see again the bony stalks of her white arms lifted, like the arms of those who have already perished reaching from the grave. And the young man, in his matador’s suit and his cracked, black, patent-leather pumps, danced his desperate, intricate steps before her, his legs as brittle and thin as sticks of kindling in his cotton stockings, the brass coins jingling with avarice on his tricorner hat. And no one else looked at them, it seemed to Rod Murray; no one else dared watch them as they danced away across the parquet floor.

Frankfurt American Post Exchange, mid-1950s

In glaring contrast is the wealth and health of the Americans and their Post Exchanges, clubs, cocktail parties, and commissaries:

But once you stepped from the German city street, and into the Commissary, here, for better or worse, was the look of home. Metal push-wagons waited in a double row in the overheated entranceway, as they waited in the chain stores of any Stateside city you might name. Mrs. Furley showed her identification to the German girl seated at the desk, and picked up a meat number, and then she moved on with the others, as she had day after day of the year that had just elapsed—moved on with the young women in their saddleback shoes and bobby socks, pushing her wagon as they pushed theirs before them, moved into the thick of it with the matrons, the teen-age girls, the displaced grandmothers, some of them newly come from the States, who clung to the handles of their vehicles as if to the last remaining vestiges of a civilization they had always known….

On the shelves which lined and bisected the vast low hall were stacked the familiar cans and bottles—the names of Campbell, and Heinz, and Van Camp, and Fould, and Kellogg, to reassure the exiled, and beans and pancakes illustrated in color so that the fears of the lost and the bewildered might be allayed.

For some Americans, however, life on post in Germany was better than life back home. In “Home,” a black G.I. befriends a skinny Germany boy he spots shivering in the rain, takes him into the Post Exchange, and buys him a new set of clothes, including a warm coat and sturdy shoes. When the German clerk checking him out chastises the G.I. for spoiling the boy, he replies, “Well, at home … at home, ma’am, I never had much occasion to do for other people, so I was glad to have had this opportunity offered me,”

The best piece, however, is the introduction—at over seventy pages by far the longest in the book. In large part, it reprints Boyle’s account for The New Yorker of the trial of Heinrich Baab, a thuggish low-ranking member of the S.S. known as “The Terror of the Frankfurt Jews.” Unlike the Nuremberg Trials and other tribunals conducted by the Occupation forces, Baab’s trial took place in a German court, with German judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense attorney. And unlike most of the victims of the high-ranking Nazis tried in Nuremberg, many of Baab’s victims sat in court and watched their former persecutor as he sat in the dock. “If they were not actually the murdered,” Boyle writes, “they were those whose annihilation had been attempted, or they were of the flesh and blood of those who had died.”

As Boyle describes him, Baab seems more intent on snacking than on the proceedings:

He had a pallid, bloated face, this forty-one year-old Frankfurt citizen, and he wore a khaki shirt, the collar of which seemed tight around his fleshy neck. His broad rayon tie, which had apparently been striped in yellow and brown in its time, was now faded, and his heavy head, with the front half of the skull naked of hair, hung sideways. For, despite the fact that he was on trial for the murder of fifty-six other Frankfurt citizens, he was concerned with some kind of tidbit, some kind of nut, which his fingers kept shelling out of sight below the panels of the dock. With his head inclined at this angle, the polished area of his broad, flat skull was mercilessly exposed, and his blunt-fingered heavy hand could be seen only at those moments when he contrived to slip a nut into his mouth. As he prepared the next morsel of food for consumption, his sagging jowls went surreptitiously into motion, and his glance moved carefully around the courtroom as he chewed.

In Baab’s trial, Boyle saw “the pattern for a revolution which has not taken place, the outline for action which might spring not from an outraged national honor, but from the outrage of a deeper, wider honor.” At the time when The Smoking Mountain was first published by McGraw-Hill in 1951, her assessment was that Germany was still holding back from this revolution, not yet ready to “be brought to accept a national responsibility?” By the time the book was republished by Alfred A. Knopf in 1963, Shirer considered that Boyle’s Germany “is a Germany which no longer exists. The rubble has long since been cleared, the cities and factories rebuilt, the Germans become prosperous and independent and confident…” In reality, though, the wounds of war do not heal just from having the rubble cleared and shiny new buildings erected in its place. One thing I’ve come to appreciate from living in Europe for many years is that the experience of war, defeat, and occupation makes it much harder to look at the world in black and white terms like “good” and “bad”: survival usually involves more subtle nuances of grey. For anyone who’s forgotten that, Kay Boyle’s The Smoking Mountain offers an effective reminder.


The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Germany During the Occupation, by Kay Boyle
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963

Discovery, a Paperback Magazine (1953-1955)

Covers of Discovery numbers 1, 2, and 3
During my annual pilgrimage to the Montana Valley Book Store, I decided to dig around in the anthologies section, a section I’ve always avoided before. I’ll admit to a bias for original sources over compilations, and I’ve rarely found a good reason to overcome it. But it was hot outside and cool in the basement where the paperbacks are shelved, and so I dawdled a little longer.

There were the predictable copies of classic story collections aimed at high school and other such forgettable fare. But there were also dozens of copies of Ted Solotaroff’s landmark paperback magazine series, New American Review, and a few of New World Writing, and a handful of copies of Discovery, all in attractive Mondrian-esque covers. I’m sure I’ve ignored plenty of copies of Discovery over the years, but since I am focusing on short fiction this year, I was curious to see if there was anything interesting to be found.

The cover of Discovery no. 1 proclaimed, “This is the first issue of a challenging new periodical devoted to outstanding short stories, poems and essays by some of today’s most talented writers. All the selections are published here for the first time.” Of the various names displayed on the front, most were familiar: Norman Mailer, William Styron, Hortense Calisher, Chandler Brossard. But of the dozen on the back, most were unknown to me: Julia Savarese; Arnold Grisman; P. Alelyunas; U. S. D. Quincey. Every issue I thumbed through had a fair number of unrecognized names, so I added a few of the less beat-up copies to my stack.

When I got them home and investigated further, I learned that I’d pretty much bought all the issues of Discovery that had ever been published: six. Perhaps inspired by New World Writing, which had begun the year before, Pocket Books had hired novelist Vance Bourjaily and critic John W. Aldridge as editors for what they confidently predicted would “at last fulfill the terms of the American writer’s perennial vision of a magazine: large audience, fair pay, and the freedom to write as he pleases.”

You know this was doomed.

Discovery would be a fist in the face of the Establishment. Its editors rejected “the cynical portrait of the American reader as a juvenile oaf;” rejected “the timorous assumptions that pressure groups can put an honest magazine out of business;” rejected “the kind of practicality which dictates that the contents of a large-circulation magazine must be inoffensively general….” In short, they rejected “the accumulated experience of a magazine-publishing trade….”

And in keeping with that spirit, Discovery no. 1 opens with a quintessential tale of rejecting the norms of society. In “Rockabye Baby,” by the unknown Arnold Grisman, the narrator goes to bed for a couple of days to get over a cold and then decides to stay there for good. His parents plea with him to get up, but he refuses. They try bribery, then badgering with a full case of relatives, and finally try simply ignoring him. But this beatnik Oblomov comes to realize that bed is the only place he can be himself:

I just lie here and it’s quiet and peaceful, only sometimes I wonder why I decided to stay in bed. I didn’t have any ideas like that when I got out of the Army, I thought I’d go out and get a job like anybody else. It wasn’t until I’d been in bed a couple of days that I realized how much trouble it is earning a living, all the running and pushing and shoving. And for what? To get old and tired and worried like my old man?

Ironically, the author of this dropout manifesto went on to become a senior executive in the J. Walter Thompson Agency, one of the biggest advertising firms on Madison Avenue.

Fortunately, things soon pick up from this forgettable start. Mailer contributes “The Dead Gook,” a grim and violent account of combat in the Philippines much in the flavor of The Naked and the Dead, and the first issue ends with William Styron’s short novel of military brutality, The Long March. A long selection (could it be otherwise?) from Marguerite Young’s massive novel, Miss Macintosh, My Darling also appears, along with “Happy Ending”, a rare short story by poet and novelist Kenneth Fearing. Later issues featured similar rare excursions into short fiction by poets Mary Swenson and Muriel Rukeyser as well as by critics Anatole Broyard and Roger Shattuck.

Covers of Discovery numbers 4,5, and 6

Although Discovery was never quite so revolutionary as Bourjaily claimed in his prefaces (Aldridge left after the first issue), there are some noteworthy contrarian pieces to be found. Discovery no. 2 includes the first story by outsider poet and novelist Gil Orlovitz, and other issues debuted the work of Gilbert Rogin, James Leo Herlihy, and Harold Brodkey. Discovery no. 3 includes the first excerpt from Alan Harrington’s satire of conformity, The Revelations of Doctor Modesto. Well back in Discovery no. 6, you find “The Perfectionist,” a terrific story by Joseph Slotkin that proves that any attempt to ignore the old truth that a new car begins to depreciate the moment it’s driven off the lot can only lead to madness:

There ought to be something in the world that could be kept safe and inviolate….

… And maybe if he and this machine kept moving, nothing could harm them–they could move like planets in their orbits, like meteors—

… Even dust could not settle o them, if they moved fast enough, away, and if anyone or even anything got in the way, they would go faster….

… Faster, and if this machine, that was a part of him now, got hungry, it could feed from his own blood, he felt it—

Slotkin published about a dozen stories, some in SF magazines, a few in literary magazines, then died in the 1960s, his work essentially forgotten. I am very tempted to attempt to search for the rest of his ouevre.

My favorite piece comes from Discovery no. 3. “Elegy on the Passing of Shepheard’s Hotel,” an uncategorizable piece by architecture critic Allan Temko, pictures the last moments of the famed Cairo hotel, which burned down in 1952:

Hello, there, this is the first speaking rather casually among the pillars of the lobby. Hello, Hello, I’m sitting on a sofa admiring these potted plants rather posh what, these potted plants. If anyone asks my name, tell them I’m the fire, I’m the fire. If anyone asks my name, I’m the fire. Hello hello. Hello what smashing carpets. If anyone asks my name, I’m the fire. Hello stucco, hello walls, hello plaster, hello floors. If anyone asks my name, tell them I’m the fire, the fire, the rather goodlooking chap on the sofa, old soul. Hello hello old soul hello old soul hello. Hello old soul here’s my card. I’m the fire and I’m in town my clothes are linen and my hat’s bamboo hello old soul here’s a drink for you. I’m the fire crepe-de-Chine hello old soul have a drink again.

I’d carry the quote on longer, but I suspect this is the sort of thing one either loves at first sight or hates outright. It’s unlike anything else I’m aware that Temko wrote and the closest thing to experimental fiction in the whole series.

By Discovery no. 6, Pocket Books tossed in the towel. Bourjaily’s preface claimed that it was only “the closing of our first series,” but if there’s a second series, it’s coming on the same train as Godot. The goal of publishing a ground-breaking literary magazine seems to have been doomed from the start. Bourjaily blamed the failure on three fundamental shortcomings: infrequency—it only came out twice a year; irregularity (an oxymoron for a periodical?)—twice a year didn’t mean every six months, apparently; and production—it was tough to be timely when it took six months after the manuscripts were ready to get the new issue to the shelves. Though Bourjaily was willing to admit, “We have failed; there is a phrase that no man likes to write,” he noted the successes, too: 70 stories, 89 poems, and a dozen pieces of non-fiction; seventeen writers published for the first time; sales as high as 150,000 copies for an issue.

I’d suggest that someone try collecting the best of Discovery into an anthology … but I’m afraid it would only end up on the same kind of shelf where I found my copies in the first place.


Discovery: An American Review, edited by Vance Bourjaily
New York: Cardinal Editions by Pocket Books, 1953-1955

Selected Stories, by Martin Armstrong (1951)

Cover of first UK edition of 'Selected Stories' by Martin Armstrong

In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined craftsman as “”An artificer; a manufacturer; a mechanick.” When the first OED was published 150 years later, craftsman was still associated with assembly rather than creation: “A man who practices a handicraft; an artificer, artisan.” And even today, to refer to a writer as a craftsman is to assign him or her to the second class: better than a hack but not so fine as an artist.

One could argue, however, that would-be creators are better off studying the craftsmen than the artist. After all, if artists are few and craftsmen are many, then chances are better that new writers will end up as the latter. And some mastery of craft is required for most lasting works of art. But it only takes a look at a sample of academic syllabi to conclude that “craftsman” is not the label a writer would want if he wants to be remembered and studied in posterity.

Take the example of Martin Armstrong, for example. Armstrong published seven collections of short stories over the course of twenty years, and continued publishing stories, if less frequently, into the 1960s. If he gets much mention today, it’s due more to the fact that he married Conrad Aiken’s ex-wife Jessie and thereby became stepfather to noted children’s author Joan Aiken. None of his novels, poems, or short story collections are in print today and he only earns a mention in the most comprehensive encyclopedias of English literature.

Reviewing one of his collections, critic Norah Meade wrote that, “Mr. Armstrong is a good craftsman. There is a clear, unembellished directness about both his plots and their presentation which makes his characters, his scenes and his intentions readily recognizable at a glance. They are interesting to contemplate, too, and even pleasantly subtle.” You know, of course, there is a “But” coming: “… but he fails to make them significant, either emotionally or intellectually. If the emotional reaction that one gets from a work of art in, any medium is the real test of its value, then Mr. Armstrong is not an artist in the most exalted sense.”

As evidenced by his Selected Stories (1951), however, Armstrong was every bit as successful a craftsman of the short story as, say, Algernon Blackwood or W. W. Jacobs. I use these two comparisons deliberately, as neither ranks on the level of Chekhov, Hemingway, Cheever, or other artists of the short story, but are acknowledged as masters in its genre forms–ghost stories, horror stories, humorous stories, stories of the sea and sailors. Much of Armstrong’s work falls into these categories.

Although a number of Armstrong’s stories have appeared in anthologies of ghost stories, it would probably be more accurate to describe them as spectral stories. In them, his aim is not to spook the reader as much as to remind one how fine is the line between life and death. In the opening story of this collection, “The Inner Room”, for example, an old gentleman knocks upon the door of his neighbor’s cottage. Getting no answer, he cautiously steps in. He calls, but no one answers. He roams the house, looking for his neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Riddle. In their bedroom, he sees something startling:

An old sheet was spread over the bed, completely covering it except for the discoloured pillow at the head, and under the sheet lay a dead body. He realized it in a flash. The dead face, sunk in the pillow, was the only uncovered part of it, but the long concave sweep from the bulge of the chest to the jutting feet was unmistakable.

A moment later, however, the sight is transformed:

Daylight is not a stable thing. Imperceptibly, second by second, it changes, and during the moments he had stood looking into the little room the light had altered, however slightly, and he saw quite clearly now that the bed was empty. The dead face was nothing more than stains in the ticking of the uncased pillow; the bulk of the thorax was a heap of folded bedding under the sheet.

Returning downstairs, he encounters Mrs. Riddle, and they sit in the kitchen for a brief conversation. As they talk, he has an unsettling feeling: “… whenever her eyes met his he was aware of a strangeness in her gaze and felt that they were talking across a gulf of unasked and unanswered questions.”

So was there a body? Was it Mr. Riddle’s? Or Mrs. Riddle’s? Or is the old gentleman himself the deceased? Armstrong leaves the reader to wonder.

Armstrong was also adept at the humorous story, which he could turn to both bitter and fantastic purposes. In “The Camberwell Beauty”, a passing comparison, made in conversation, between a young woman and a butterfly, turns out to have fatal results when a less than fully-witted butterfly collector overhears it. This and several other stories could easily have been raw material for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the longest story of the collection, “Presence of Mind”, however, the fantastic side of Armstrong’s humor is best displayed. What starts off as nothing more than a solicitor’s impulsive decision to take a short cut through his neighbor’s private park spirals, through a series of absurd twists, into a nightmare as bizarre, yet comic, as Kafka’s traveling salesman turning into a giant cockroach. But it’s a very English nightmare, for the twists depend upon such names and places as Muggleton Spoffin, ]oshua
Palimpsest, Calceolaria Grove, and Hobbleton-on-Sloke. And, unlike Gregor Samsa’s, the fate of Armstrong’s solicitor is, in the end, no worse that to move “the offices of Pellett, Pellett & Pellett to what he considered a more salubrious quarter of the town.”

If not, perhaps, a masterpiece, Martin Armstrong’s Selected Stories remain, many decades after their publication, durable and entertaining examples of solid mid-20th century short story craftsmanship. Which is no second class distinction.


Selected Stories, by Martin Armstrong
London: Jonathan Cape, 1951

Vertical and Horizontal, by Lillian Ross (1963)

Covers from various editions of “Vertical and Horizontal” by Lillian Ross

Lillian Ross’s death at the venerable age of 99 has been widely noted, starting with Rebecca Mead’s obituary in Ross’s beloved The New Yorker. A number of her more successful books, including Portrait of Hemingway, have been reprinted in recent years and I suspect more will follow now. Less likely to be reissued is her one foray into fiction, Vertical and Horizontal (1963), which has been variously described as a novel or a collection of short stories.

Vertical and Horizontal portrays a world that some of us thought only existing in Woody Allen’s jokes: the classical Freudian psychoanalyst whose office on the Upper West Side, complete with couch, sees a recurring cast of patients whose treatment plays out, several times a week, for years at great expense and, perhaps, to some therapeutic benefit. In nine stories, all previously published in The New Yorker, Ross shows the handsome and much-sought-after bachelor, Dr. Spencer Fifield, and his mentor, Dr. Blauberman.

Fellow The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean called Ross “the consummate reporter, listener and observer,” and Vertical and Horizontal often shows off Ross’s remarkable ear for voices. As in this description of how people laugh at a cocktail party:

“You’ll love this! Tell him, Soph!”

“The latest on why people in Great Neck aren’t building any fallout shelters,” Sophie said.

“This’ll kill you!” Freisleben shouted.

“Because they figure they won’t need them,” Sophie said. “They figure if war comes the men will all be at their offices in New York, the women will all be out shopping, the kids will be in school. So why build? For the help?”

Everybody laughed the same kind of laugh, united and exact, a laugh that was divided clearly into two parts, two syllables–an “ah” that went uphill quickly moving into a knowing “hah.”

Critic Granville Hicks felt that “one could only judge” Vertical and Horizontal “harshly as a novel, whereas the stories as stories are fine,” and, indeed, two of the nine stories are only loosely connected with the rest. He described Fifield and Blauberman as walking compendia of “breezy attitudes, pseudo-clinical jargon and second-hand upmanship.” Playwright Edward Albee was even blunter: “Both men are near-monsters. They are hollow men; they are insensitive, small, mean, are amoral; they are climbers, these men, and it is their effect on each other, and on the people whose lives touch theirs, that is the core of the book.”

Yet, Albee wrote,

… the most astonishing thing about Vertical and Horizontal and the most extraordinary of Lillian Ross’s enormous gifts, is that we care. Spencer Fifield is, for lack of a better word, the hero of the book, and we truly care about this man, about this hollow, hopeless man, and we care because Miss Ross makes us see that he is helpless–the monster is victim, that the hopeless man cries out hopelessly, that the emptiness can never be filled, only circumscribed, that the most miserable of men, the man who knows he suffers but cannot grasp his suffering, cannot feel it, is not any less a human being, only a much sadder one.

It is Miss Ross’s compassion that surfaces. Without it, the book would be cold, cruel, and distasteful. With it, the book is a triumph.


Vertical and Horizontal, by Lillian Ross
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963

Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand (1954)

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Thirty Years'The dust jacket of Marquand’s Thirty Years provides this unimpressive description of the book’s contents: “A collection of stories, articles and essays which have not previously appeared in book form.” Plenty of such collections have been published, but perhaps none other has been so honest in acknowledging the flimsy rationale for its existence. Little, Brown, Marquand’s publisher, needed some content to put out “in book form.” So Marquand gathered up an assortment of material that hadn’t previous appeared in book form, and hey presto: a book. He was also honest enough to admit in his foreword that the book makes “no pretense at being a prize collection.”

In his introduction to the book, Clifton Fadiman calls Marquand “the best novelist of social comedy now [1954] at work in our country” and predicts that he will be considered the American Thackeray of the 20th century. Fadiman attributes Marquand’s success to his being “at once outsider and insider.” From the distance of over a half century later, I think it’s become clear that Marquand was far more insider than outsider. And despite recent attempts to prop up the place of rich East Cost white men as its pinnacle, it’s probably also safe to conclude that the role of Boston and New York clubmen in the American Establishment mostly of historical and anthropological interest today.

So why bother with Thirty Years? Well, unless you do find historical and anthropological interest in the heyday of the American Establishment, there isn’t any reason to. A fair amount of the book’s content is just as slapdash as the dust jacket’s disclaimer suggests. Is anyone still interested in Marquand’s stories from the Mulligatawny Club, a mocking version of the various yacht clubs–or societies for the preservation of the prejudices of rich retired white men–he encountered along the shores Long Island Sound? Or his stories of the “strenuous life” of rich young white men in East Coast private schools and Hahvuhd?

Marquand includes a long story, “The End Game,” which Herbert Mayes, editor at Good Housekeeping in the 1940s and 1950s, “once thought highly of.” In it, Marquand attempts to weave a narrative out of various threads he was familiar with: China in the years before the Communist revolution; the culture of American Army life; New York City in the 1940s; and chess. He notes that the story is roughly equal in length to Henry James’ Daisy Miller and that he found it a “dangerous” form to work with: “Such a fictional form can fall over itself more readily than any other I have ever known.” And so “The End Game” does.

The story is told by Henry Ide, an American businessman taking one of his periodic breaks in New York City from time working in trade in China. There is something I always find interesting about stories that grow out of characters who find themselves in such “in between times.” Wandering around midtown Manhattan one evening, he enters a penny arcade and finds in its basement a room where you can play chess or checkers against the house masters. Ide sits down to play chess with a scruffy-looking man who introduces himself as Joe, and over the course of the next few evenings, he draws out pieces of Joe’s story. Marquand proves an effective Scheherezade for most of the tale, drawing the reader along through its pages. And then he blows it. In his foreword, Marquand notes that many of his magazine stories “lack depth and significance, qualities popular periodicals customarily avoid, and almost inevitably they reach a happy ending.” Let’s just say that “The End Game” features one of the most abrupt and unbelievable happy endings ever written. And reason enough not to read it: I wish I hadn’t.

Most of Marquand’s serious novels are well over 400 pages long, and he was often accused of putting far more material into them than was necessary. And he committed the same sin with Thirty Years. Of its 466 pages, only the 120-some pages in the section “The Wars: Men and Places” are of more than passing interest, and fifty of those are taken up by the unsatisfying “The End Game.” What’s left are a handful of pieces–a mix of fiction and reporting–that stem from Marquand’s stints working for the War Department during World War Two.

The best of these, “Ascension Island,” is taken from a trip Marquand took in mid-1943 in the company of Brigadier General James S. Simmons, a former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health assigned to survey the potential for disease outbreaks at U. S. Army bases everywhere from the Caribbean and Brazil to North Africa, Sicily, the Middle East, India, and China. Simmons was given priority over air transport “that could bump off anyone except the President, the Secretaries of War and the Navy, and General Marshall and Admiral King.”

On the returning leg of the trip, Simmons and Marquand stopped at Ascension Island, a British protectorate in the middle of the South Atlantic that had been transformed into a refueling and patrol base for the U. S. military. There, he finds a resounding demonstration of the power of production and logistics that underlay the American effort in World War Two (and went on to constitute of core of what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, which is still on display at places like Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan):

Whenever I hear someone say that there is no unified national spirit and no culture in the United States, I think of our airports in Africa, India and the Pacific. It may be true that the Englishman far from home dresses for dinner and has his Number One Boy bring in his gin and tonic, but in all his centuries of colonizing he has never brought his civilization with him wholesale, as our armed forces have brought theirs in this war. Machine shops, plumbing, air conditioning, outdoor movies, ping-pong tables, boxing rings, Time, Newsweek, the weekly comics, Pocket Books, Gillette razors, Williams’ Aqua Velva, Rheingold beer, Johnson’s baby powder, Spam and Planters’ peanuts, all followed our army to the war for the edification of dark-skinned men in G-strings and for the shocked amazement of the French and British.

In this piece and in “Iwo Jima before H-Hour”, Marquand provides–perhaps unconsciously–some of the rare reporting from World War Two that stresses the extent to which the American effort depended on materiel and masses of personnel. It was an approach that would soon take over many other aspects of American life and push into obsolescence Marquand’s “timeless” world, where “The Boston pigeons are exactly the same as they were fifty years ago, and so are the old ladies and gentlemen who feed them, and so are the newspaper readers on the Common benches and the amorous couples who walk the shady paths.” Which is one reason why Thirty Years is now more of an anthropological artifact than a relevant work of literature.


Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand
Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1954

The Strangers Were There: Selected Stories by John Bell Clayton (1957)


With Charlottesville, Virginia and its statue of General Robert E. Lee in the news, it’s worth taking a moment to note a long-forgotten collection of short stories set in and around the town. John Bell Clayton’s The Strangers Were There (1957), published posthumously, earned mildly reviews and quickly disappeared, but it remains perhaps the most accurate portrait of the town and its people–at least as it stood in the late 1940s and early 1950s, on the brink of desegregation and the Civil Rights movement:

He got off the bus at Third Street, flipped up the collar of his topcoat and waited at the curb until the buss pulled away, expelling a bluish gush of exhaust fumes. Third Street ran diagonally to Main exactly four blocks from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Station to the Robert E. Lee Hotel. There, amid the leafless elm and buckeye trees, the commanding bronze figure of General Lee astride Traveller, his hat in his right hand, assailed by the flakes now, faced with that imperturbable gentle resignation not just south but the whole enigmatic contradiction that was and remained and would always be the South.

In Clayton’s Charlottesville, lightly disguised as “Colonial Springs,” the members of the Colonial Club–lawyers, businessmen, and officeholders–“ran everything, everywhere.” On Wednesdays, the young cadets of the Military Institute strolled downtown on their two hours of furlough. On Thursdays, the girls from the local Seminary walked the same sidewalks during their own short release. On Saturday afternoons, “crowds of fur-coated college girls and their escorts came back from football games” and took over the restaurants and drugstores. And on Saturday nights, the sidewalks were packed with country folk “come to swarm into the ten-cent stores, the hardware stores and notion stores, the Strand and the Colonial movie houses, to parade along the streets, to look and see, to get a little excited and possibly a little drunk, to give expression to something elemental.”

Born in Craigsville on the western slope of the Shenandoah Valley, Clayton attended university in Charlottesville and wrote for the town’s paper, The Daily Progress. From there he went on to work with Ernie Pyle in the Office of War Information’s San Francisco bureau during World War Two, then stayed on as an editor for the Chronicle.

John Bell Clayton
H. L. Mencken is said to have encouraged Clayton to try writing fiction, and his instinct proved right. The second story Clayton ever sold, “The White Circle” (included in The Strangers Were There), was selected as winner of the O. Henry Award first prize for 1947. By 1951, he was making a full-time living selling stories to Colliers, Mencken’s The American Mercury, and other leading magazines. He then published three novels in the next three years: Six Angels at My Back (1952) and Wait, Son, October is Near (1953), both set in rural Virginia; and Walk Toward the Rainbow (1954), set in San Francisco. California historian Kevin Starr wrote that Rainbow“abounds in ample and precise detail regarding the city.”

A similar eye for details shines throughout The Strangers Were There, which collects most of Clayton’s published stories, along with a number of unpublished pieces. Edited by Clayton’s widow, Martha Carmichael Clayton (sister of famed songwriter Hoagy Carmichael), the collection is organized into three sections: “The Town Clock,” whose stories are set in Charlottesville/Colonial Springs; “The Village Bells,” set in a hamlet perhaps not unlike Clayton’s hometown Craigsville; and “The Valley and the Mountains Beyond,” set in the Appalachian farm and hill country. Through these stories weave all the different peoples of the region:

There were the rich and the poor and the good and the indifferent. There was a man worth thirty million dollars, and another, a gaunt moonshiner from Jerkumtight Hollow, come on a Saturday night to look at the neon signs, who did not possess thirty. There were the housewives, the merchants, the lawyers, the schoolteachers, the filling-station attendants, the college girls, the golf players on one scale and the pool players on another. There were the churchgoers and the radio listeners and the ne’er-do-wells and the drinkers of cheap wine. On a Sunday night there were a dinner party at the country club and a tryst at a roadside tourist cabin and a prayer meeting at the Lutheran Church and three drunks telling lies in the men’s room of the bus depot and a Negro child dying f leukemia on Jitney Street and a young couple getting married and a thousand women preparing supper and an esthetic girl at the Seminary writing what she believed to be a sonnet or a song.

Clayton has a good feel for the fine and ignoble aspirations and deeds of the poor country people living in the hills around the town. They are not all two-dimensional stereotypes of simple but honest folk. Some are lazy, some are cowardly, some too much in love with their liquor, and some too obstinate to get out of their own way. But when they come down to hang around Main Street on a Saturday night, he can see that,

There was something raw and beautiful about it. Mountain country has a great somber loneliness. The winters are especially lonely. You live there in country like that. Your neighbors are few. Once in a while, in that great dead winter stillness, you hear a solitary crow cawing and you go to the window and watch its fugitive flight across a dull sky. The snow drifts high in the hollows there. And when the warmth of the summer finally does come, you feel the need to go out and be among people.

Some of Clayton’s best feel for details comes in the small, telling descriptions of his characters. There is a remarkable range to be found here: blowhards, saints, bigots, cowards, winners, and losers. “Little Woodrow” features a small-time crook who read too many old copies of The Police Gazette while in prison and comes home dressed up like a cartoon gangster–“like a figure in a wax museum suddenly become animate and determined to revive the role of an undersized villain in a threadbare melodrama everybody else had long since forgotten.” A large, lazy man lays on his bunk “in the state of dull, hippopotamus somnolence that passed for consciousness with him.” And he offers a priceless description of a nervous paregoric addict desperately seeking his next fix: “a series of expressions like tiny clowns chased one another across his eyes: jocularity, solemnity, mirth, concern, and finally something stricken, haunted, pursued.”

If the passages I’ve quoted make The Strangers Were There a bit honey-hued with nostalgia, I should caution that Clayton was too much of a newspaperman to see the world with anything but a sharp and skeptical eye. For all the love he may have felt for the Shenandoah country and its people, he did choose to leave it behind in his late twenties and never returned. And perhaps some of his reasoning is revealed in the story, “Incident at Chapman’s Switch,” about the shooting of a black man and his wife by a belligerent cop. The town sheriff and local judge quietly agreed to look the other way, and the story revolves around a discussion between a journalist and the editor of the town paper about how to write up the account. “Son,” the editor admonishes the journalist, “We are movin’ slowly and gradually to improve things and no matter how much you would like to you just can’t do it all at once.” This causes the writer to muse:

I am a part of it…. I was born into it and raised by it…. It is my native land and I love it, but there are times when I hate it. They’ve made me talk like them and look like them and even act like them…. But they can no longer make me think like them….

One can only hope that similar thoughts come to those people around Charlottesville and elsewhere who’ve been coming up with reasons to hold back the hands of time.


The Strangers Were There: Selected Stories by John Bell Clayton
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957

The Third Reich of Dreams, by Charlotte Beradt (1968)

Cover of 1968 Quadrangle Books edition of 'The Third Reich of Dreams'
Robert Ley, head of the German Labour Front under Hitler, once said, “The only person in Germany who still leads a private life is the person who sleeps.” In The Third Reich of Dreams, Charlotte Beradt proves that Ley underestimated the power of his own regime over the people’s unconscious.

Working quietly and covertly, through an understandably informal network of acquaintances, journalist Charlotte Beradt began collecting accounts of dreams involving the Nazis soon after Hitler assumed power as Reich Chancellor in January 1933. Unable to work due to her association with the Communist Party, Beradt took numerous precautions to prevent the disclosure of her project, smuggling out bits and pieces of her notes in letters to friends and hiding them in her apartment. By the time she and her second husband, the lawyer and novelist Martin Beradt, fled Germany in 1939, she had recorded over 300 such accounts.

She collected and analyzed roughly fifty of these in the short book, Das Dritte Reich des Traums over twenty-five years later, in 1966. Translated into English, it was published, with an afterword by psychologist and concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim, as The Third Reich of Dreams by Quadrangle Books in 1968. As Bettelheim writes, “This is not just a volume of dreams but one of cautionary tales. They warn us about how strong are the tendencies of the unconscious, when we are torn by anxieties, to believe in the omnipotent external power. It is this, our anxiety, on which the success of all totalitarian systems is built.”

Beradt was, of course, familiar with the works of Franz Kafka, and more than a few of the dreams she recounts are Kafka-esque nightmares:

In place of the street signs which had been abolished, posters had been set up on every corner, proclaiming in white letters on a black background the twenty words people were not allowed to say. The first was “Lord”–to be on the safe side I must have dreamt it in English. I don’t recall the following words and possibly didn’t even dream them, but the last one was “I.”

As in many of Kafka’s stories, Nazi power was perceived by Beradt’s dreamers as blind, irrational, omnipotent, and omnipresent. One doctor told her that he dreamed he was reading in his apartment when the walls around him suddenly disappeared. Suddenly, from the street outside, a loudspeaker boomed, “According to the decree of the 17th of this month on the Abolition of Walls….”

Other dreams evoke memories of Orwell’s 1984. Beradt tells of the dream of a man who had spoken with his brother on the telephone earlier that day. Having taken the precaution to praise Hitler in his conversation, he later let slip the remark that “Nothing gives me pleasure anymore.” Later, he told Beradt, he dreamt:

In the middle of the night the telephone rang. A dull voice said merely, “This is the Monitoring Office.” I knew immediately that my crime lay in what I had said about not finding pleasure in anything, and I found myself arguing my case, begging and pleading that this one time I be forgiven–please just don’t report anything this one time, don’t pass it on, please just forget it. The voice remained absolutely silent and then hung up without a word, leaving me in agonizing uncertainty.

The man recalled inventing numerous bureaucratic entities in his dreams, including the “Training Center for the Wall-Installation of Listening Devices,” and regulations such one “Prohibiting Residual Bourgeois Tendencies Among Municipal Employees.” As with the citizens of Orwell’s Airstrip One, Beradt’s dreamers lived “from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overhead, and, except in darkness, every move scrutinized.”

In one dream Beradt collected, a woman saw Hitler being pulled from the Reichstag by airplane with a lasso, taken out over the North Sea, and dropped into the water. But among Beradt’s dreams, acts of resistance in dreams were exceptionally rare. Instead, the power of the regime to erase the sense of self was pervasive. One young woman recalled seeing banners with the slogan, “Public Interest Comes Before Self-Interest” fluttering in endless repetition along a street.

As Bettelheim writes, “Under a system of terror we must purge even our unconscious mind of any desire to fight back, or any belief that such rebellion can succeed, because therein alone lies safety.” In its most extreme form, the power of the Nazi regime over the unconscious prohibited any form of realism. One man told Beradt, “I dreamt that I no longer dream about anything but rectangles, triangles, and octagons….”

By far, the dreams themselves are the most interesting parts of The Third Reich of Dreams. I found much of Beradt’s commentary awkwardly written, and it would have been fascinating to learn more about her process of collecting the accounts and getting them out of Nazi Germany successfully. However, though long out of print, it remains an eloquent testimony to the psychological power of a totalitarian state. As theologian Paul Tillich wrote, reflecting on how slowly he came to realize the impact of Hitler’s control over the German people, “In my conscious time I felt that we could escape the worst, but my subconscious knew better.”


The Third Reich of Dreams, by Charlotte Beradt, translated from the German by Adriane Gottwald
Chicago, Illinois: Quadrangle Books, 1968

Four Short Short Stories from Lost Causes by José Leandro Urbina

Portrait of a Lady

In the light of dawn that filtered timidly through the window, she smoothed her dress carefully. One of her fingernails cleaned the others. She moistened her fingertips with saliva and smoothed her eyebrows. As she finished arranging her hair, she heard the jailers coming along the passage- way. In front of the interrogation room, remembering the pain, her legs trembled. Then they put a hood on her and she crossed the threshold. Inside was the same voice as the day before. The same footsteps as the day before came over to her chair, bringing the damp voice right up her ear.
–Where were we yesterday, Miss Jimenez?
–We were saying that you should remember you’re dealing with a lady, she said.
A blow smashed into her face. She felt her jawbone crack.
–Where were we, Miss Jimenez?
–We were saying that you should remember you’re dealing with a lady, she said.

Relationships

He told me I was an alarmist and I told him he was blind. He told me that if that’s really how things were the government would know what to do and there was no cause for concern. I told him his position was typical of people who think all problems will be solved from above and I thought it was extremely irresponsible. He told me it was more irresponsible to go around mudslinging and spreading dissension. I told him it was despicable to lead people to slaughter with the white lie of an ideological project that was no longer valid. He told me that attitudes like mine would lead to catastrophe and one day we would be judged. I told him, finally, to go to hell. We never spoke to each other again. Yesterday I found out he was in the cell next to mine, and this morning I saw him when they let us out into the yard. We didn’t say hello, but I know he was looking at me. I looked at him, too, out of the comer of my eye. He appears to be in poor health, just like me.

Questioning

In November, after more than two months away from home, I have decided to risk a visit. It is early afternoon, the sun is shining, and there is almost no one in the streets. My mother opens the door and I enter quickly. The big house is empty; my father and brothers are still in prison. My mother has been alone all this time, and three days a week she goes to ask for news of them. As we cross the patio toward the kitchen she tells me she hopes they will be released in time for Christmas. Before stepping across the threshold she stops, takes my hand and asks me: Do you believe there is a God, my boy? I look at her, smaller and older now, and I think that this woman who looks at me with anxious eyes as if my answer were some kind of verdict, this woman, my mother, has gone to church every Sunday and religious holiday for over forty-five years. Then, seeing her like this, I who haven’t cried for a long, long time, embrace her without answering and cry shamelessly.

Our Father Who Art in Heaven

While the sergeant was interrogating his mother and sister, the captain took the child by the hand to the other room.

–Where is your father? he asked.
–He’s in heaven, whispered the boy.
–What’s that? Is he dead? asked the captain, surprised.
–No, said the child. Every night he comes down from heaven to eat with us.
The captain raised his eyes and discovered the little door in the ceiling

These brief stories by José Leandro Urbina come from his first collection, titled Las Malas Juntas in Spanish and, somewhat more pessimistically, Lost Causes in English. All of the stories in Lost Causes are set in a Chile suffering the repression that followed the assassination of Salvador Allende in the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and the crack-down against Allende’s supporters. They are soaked in a spirit of fear and violence leavened with the grim sense of humor shown in the last above.

“These stories are set and developed in the initial days and months after the coup,” wrote fellow Chilean writer Beatriz García-Huidobro. “They are all of great power; It is evident that they were written in raw flesh, in painful absence and still without the nostalgia of the calming time, but still with the head cold enough to print them literary quality without falling into stereotypes or lamentations.” As Chilean editor Paulo Slachevsky told García-Huidobro, “It should be compulsory reading in our schools.”

Urbina was born in Santiago, Chile and studied at the National Institute and the University of Chile. After the General’s coup in 1974, he went into exile, first in Buenos Aires and then in Canada. He returned to Chile in 2005 but still refers to himself as a permanent exile.

Lost Causes, by José Leandro Urbina, translated by Christina Shantz
Frederick, MD: Cormorant Books, 1987

Selected Stories, by Frances Bellerby (1986)

The fact that Frances Bellerby’s Selected Stories has been out of print for over thirty years now is literally a case of insult being added to injury. Having damaged her spine while walking along the Lulworth Cliffs on the Dorset coast in 1930, Bellerby spent the remaining forty-five years of her life in pain and illness, yet managed to write short stories that are discussed alongside those of Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jean Rhys, and Elizabeth Bowen. Of the 40-plus writers profiled in David Malcolm’s recent survey, The British and Irish Short Story Handbook, only one–Bellerby–has none of her story collections currently in print.

Although no less a worthy than Robert Gittings contributed an illuminating biographical sketch for Bellerby’s Selected Poems (which is still in print, probably simply due to the fact that Amazon hasn’t sold out the 1994 printing), her life deserves a treatment similar to Jean Strouse’s classic biography of Alice James. For, like Alice James, Bellerby’s was an intense and creative spirit that burned within a body often inadequate to the task of sheltering it.

Born in Bristol, Bellerby was taught at home until the age of nine by her mother, a trained nurse who worked alongside her husband, an Anglo-Catholic cleric, in a mission among the working poor in the quarries, collieries, and factories outside the city. The family was, in Gittings’ words “exceptionally tight-knit and isolated socially.” Frances idolized her older brother, Jack, and his death in World War One was the first of a series of tragedies that left permanent imprints that can be seen clearly in her work.

Eager to join the fight after the outbreak of the war, Jack volunteered for the Coldstream Guards and was among the first of the so-called Kitchener’s Army to be sent to France. Visiting his family shortly before embarkation, Jack told his father that he expected to be killed in action, saying that he considered it a fate preferable to being wounded and sent home a permanent invalid. His prophecy proved true, as he was killed by an artillery shell on 8 August 1915 at “Windy Corner” near Givenchy. Decades later, in her story “The Carol”, his sister imagined her brother’s return to their home:

Observing a photograph which he did not remember, he went close to see what it was. It hung over the bed, and beneath it hung the old snapshot of James. To his amused surprise the photograph was of himself in uniform. Vaguely, he remembered having it taken. Funny old Mater to put that in my room! he thought, much entertained. Then, noticing written words at the foot of the photograph, he read: “Killed in Action at Givenchy, Aged i8, August 8th, 1915.” This gave him a tremendous shock.

So when his mother, hearing, as she often did, the softly whistled carol, ran upstairs and opened the door to look in, the room was, as usual, empty.

“Time is, perhaps, little more than a flimsy curtain, which under the least pressure of intensity gives way.” As Jeremy Hooker writes in his introduction to Selected Stories, this opening sentence from her story, “Soft and Fair”, “serves well to indicate the nature of Frances Bellerby’s short stories.”

She did try, at first, to break free from her family and painful memories. After attending a Catholic girls’ boarding school with the financial assistance of a family friend and a short stint writing for several newspapers in Bristol, she was hired by The Bristol Times and Mirror and sent to work in London as their drama critic. There she met and married John Rotherford Bellerby, a Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge studying conditions among workers in the East End. She supported her husband as she had seen her mother do, and her first books were, in Gittings’ estimation, little more than Sunday school tracts.

Then came her accident. Walking along the cliffside with her husband and another couple, Frances ran ahead in a burst of enthusiasm, slipped, and landed very awkwardly. She assured John that it was nothing and he and the other man walked on. When the other woman approached, however, she saw Frances dragging herself forward with only her hands, her face twisted in agony. Even after being helped back to their lodgings, she insisted it was only a passing injury. She wasn’t helped by her own tendency to dismiss the seriousness of what had happened, but, as Gittings puts it, “the 1930s were not a good time for the treatment of spinal injury.” And she did, somehow, realize that this was more than just a passing matter. As she later wrote in a notebook, when she found herself on the ground after the fall, “I saw … tall golden letters: THIS IS FOR EVER.”

From that point forward, she found much of the life she had become accustomed to impossible. Walking was difficult and soon required the help of a cane or crutches. She tried a variety of braces to support her back, none of them very effective. When she did consult a physician, she was likely to return home in worse pain from their manipulations. She railed against her plight: “I HATE my spine,” she wrote in her diary. “I am going to write this here because I want it out of me. I HATE my spine…. I am NEVER used to it. I NEVER shall be … I NEVER shall be reconciled to this.”

Adding to her difficulties was the news of her mother’s suicide in 1932. Having suffered from depression almost continuously since her son’s death, she waited one day for her husband to leave their house, then went up to her bedroom, shut the window and plugged up the door and opened up the gas cock. “I suffered and broke and died with her,” Frances later wrote of the impact of her mother’s death.

Her situation also strained her relationship with John Bellerby. She found living in a busy place like London or Cambridge, where he needed to work, increasingly difficult, and she began spending more and more of her time in isolated cottages in the countryside. They separated permanently in 1942. Although this added to her practical challenges, she also found that being away from him freed creative energies she had not experienced since the early days of their marriage. While she had managed to write and publish enough stories for her first collection, Come to an End (1939), before the separation, she now became to write poetry and fiction in earnest.

Writing provided a way for her to channel some of her frustrations. As Sabine Coelsch-Foisner writes in her article, “Finding a Voice: Women Writing the Short Story (to 1945),” included in A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story, “Springing from her own tragic life, Bellerby’s stories focus on exceptional experiences and events too large or formidable to understand: the traumas of war, pain, and bereavement.” Understanding something of her life’s story undoubtedly helps a reader see that Bellerby often transfers painful episodes from it into the experiences of her characters–as in the example from “The Carol” above.

She mustered the energy to write an extended work of fiction, the novel Hath the Rain a Father (1946), but her talent was shown to best advantage at a smaller scale. Some of Bellerby’s best stories deal with situations seen through a child’s eyes and with a child’s sensibility. She had a remarkable understanding of the fragility of a child’s world. As she writes in “The Little Lamps”,

A child is so strong. A child is the strongest creature on earth. A child is integrated, is its own. A child needs no loved one to share the experiencing of beauty, yet has always the underlying certainty that sharing would be easily achieved if need arose: that there is, in fact, no involuntary aloneness.

For some people, growing-up is largely a matter of the death of this certainty. A sudden death, perhaps, or perhaps a very lingering affair.

For Bellerby herself, her brother Jack’s death was undoubtedly such a death of certainty. For her characters, however, it may be merely the suspicion that some stable element in their world is about to break up. In “Pre-War”, a brother and sister are at loose ends, left to play by themselves in their house: “Life had suddenly become a stranger. For three days their mother had been shut away from them in her bedroom.” In “The Cut Finger”, a family suddenly goes to the seaside for what the children are told is a holiday, so that their father can rest. Coming back to their rooms after playing on the beach, the little girl sees her mother crying, and somehow realizes the tragic weight that lies behind this moment:

How could such a thing be? What frightful hurt had brought it about? Her mother! The one person to whom Judith had always gone, by right, without shame or doubt, whenever she herself had been broken to tears. This cherishing omnipotence writhing face-downwards on a bed, sobbing into the pillow–so that the whole world, yes, the whole established world, had been blown sky-high and come hurtling down in fragments anyhow, anywhere.

Frances Bellerby, 1950
Most of her work during the 1940s was devoted to short stories. Bellerby published two further collections of stories, The Acorn and The Cup (1948) and A Breathless Child (1952). Perhaps because of her diminishing strength from dealing with her spinal injury, however, she turned increasingly to the more concentrated form of poetry. Her first collection, Plash Mill and Other Poems, named after the Devon cottage where she spend much of the decade, was published in 1946, and The Brightening Cloud in 1949. By the end of the 1940s her poems began to be read on a regular basis on BBC radio, selected by presenter Charles Causley.

With the start of the new decade, however, the fragility of her own situation only increased. In 1950, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. She was given “perhaps a year, perhaps about five months” to live. A double mastectomy, followed by radiation treatment, suspended this sentence for some years, but she continued to suffer from respiratory problems and other frequent illnesses. Their impacts can be seen in the titles of poems from her next collection, The Stone Angel and the Stone Man, published in 1957: “Convalescence,” “Hospital Car,” “Chronic Ward,” “Dying in June”. She was increasingly confined to the little cottage in Cornwall she had bought, and eventually lost the ability to use a typewriter. She tried to direct her waning energies toward an autobiography, but gave up the effort after working on it for over fifteen years. She confided to her diary: “Desolate. Desolate. Desolate. Frightened, broken, alone.”

Yet the memory of her family traumas was never far away. When, in 1970, with the help of a friend, the publisher Alan Clodd, the first edition of her Selected Poems was released by Enitharmon Press, she dedicated the book “To the brief and everlasting life of my brother”. Clodd and others also helped her gain a Civil List pension in 1973, but it did little to relieve her situation. After years of remission, her cancer returned and she died just short of the age of 75 in July 1975. The following poem serves as a fitting epitaph for this woman whose life and work were filled with such pain and struggle:

Before the Light Fades

Before the light fades
Someone should be found to explain
With sufficient wisdom and patience
Everything I have seen.

And before owl and moth
Shock by remembered flight
The deep, tombed, silence
Of the world of night,

There should appear some linguist
Hot-blooded as a bird,
To translate with a single sentence
Everything I have heard.

Then darkness
Might prove home,
And eternal silence
The kingdom come.

Bellerby’s Selected Stories and Selected Poems are both available in electronic form in the Open Library.


Selected Short Stories, by Frances Bellerby, with an introduction by Jeremy Hooker
London: Enitharmon Press, 1986

No More Mimosa, by Ethel Mannin (1943)

Title page from "No More Mimosa"After writing a fairly disparaging piece about Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs two years ago, I wouldn’t have counted on finding her work on my reading list again. But then I read a thoughtful piece on her 1943 collection, No More Mimosa, originally printed in the December 2013 edition of the Bulletin of the Labour History Project of New Zealand, which was particularly enthusiastic about one of its stories, “Refugees,” which describes the lot of a group of Spanish republicans living in exile in London: “In a few descriptive pages Mannin crystallized the universal experience of political exile and loneliness.” Finding a copy of No More Mimosa for under $25 (the starting price is higher now, I’m afraid), I put it on my list for this year of short stories.

In her preface to the collection, Mannin writes that she “sought to give the book as definite a ‘shape’ as a novel.” To that end, she collects stories set in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two in the first section, “Before the Deluge”; in the second section, “Thunder in Spain”, she includes four stories centered upon the defeat, flight, and exile to England of an actual group of Spanish pro-Republican radicals, including Joaquin Delso de Miguel, to whom she dedicated the book; and in the final section, “The Deluge”, she depicts a Europe in the midst of a war which, at the time she was writing, there was no apparent end.

While a few of the stories in No More Mimosa are run-of-the-mill magazine fodder–more O. Henry than Chekhov, and forgotten minutes after finishing them–the collection could, with a bit of editing, serve as a striking record of its time. Mannin is an interesting case. Hugely prolific, she managed to sell well throughout her long career. The stories in this collection first appeared in such mainstream publications as Good Housekeeping, Nursery World, and The Evening Standard. At the same time, she was fierce and unapologetic in her politics and causes, supporting the Anarchists in Spain and refusing to register for national service in World War Two. In this book, these contrasts improve its interest and variety, as Mannin portrays a wider range of classes and circumstances than one is likely to find in any collection from one of her contemporaries.

With the opening story, “Mimosas for Remembrance,” she signals a clear awareness–even writing some years before the start of the war–that storm clouds were gathering:

The light was fading and the room was filled with a soft greyness, upon which the scent of mimosa floated like a dream in a sleep. A dream of spring; of other springs, in other worlds, long ago. There had been mimosa lighting the greyness of the olive-groves above Lake Como. And mimosa woods on the hillsides of Cavalière….

“Europe is doomed and damned,” one character predicts. “We’ll to the woods no more–the mimosas are all gone! It’s probably the last European spring in which they’ll not spread their branches above machine-gun nests, or be mown down before tanks.” He sums up the world they see nearing its end:

… the lives we lived sitting on cafe-terraces, drinking green wine under the chestnut trees in little Tyrolean towns, running in and out of art galleries in Paris, Rome, Florence, Vienna, all the lying in the sun we did on little plages in the South of France, the Balearic Islands–the painting, the writing, the love-affairs, the wild parties, the scandals–all lived out to a background of bars and cafes, olive-groves, mimosa woods, and rapides with romantic names–the Rome Express, the Flèche D’Or, the Blue Train, and trains that pulled into Paris from Istanbul, Belgrade, Wien, Napoli….

And the tales Mannin tells in this first section are utterly cosmopolitan in character. Mostly under five pages long, the sixteen stories comprising “Before the Deluge” are scattered all over the map: Buenos Aires, Algiers, Marseille, Sarajevo, Ragusa, Jerusalem, Montparnasse, and Moscow. And her people come from all over the social spectrum: English spinsters, French nobility, a Palestinian nationalist, an ambitious Algerian wharf-rat, a down-on-his-heels Eton graduate making his way around the Balkans as a member of a sad nightclub dance act. Some of them are still coping with the aftermath of the last war. Of a Russian family in Paris, Mannin writes, “They fled across Europe and into France, which is something which is said in a few words, but which in living meant months and years of semi-starvation in all the capitals of Eastern Europe.”

Ironically, while Mannin’s characters are almost all great travelers, one can’t help but notice after a few stories that few of them are actually heading somewhere in their lives. The English dancer changes partners in the course of his story, but this make no real difference: “Between the time of their arrival and opening they had to find rooms, find the bar, rehearse. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Nor the last.” Even in the rare case, as in “Algiers”, where the wharf-rat manages to polish up his act, make enough money to pass himself off as wealthy (for a few days, at least), and insinuate himself into the fringe of Paris society, the final destination of his climb up the ladder proves a dead end and, soon enough, he finds himself back on the waterfront. For all its travel opportunities, Mannin’s world of the thirties seems rather claustrophobic.

In the middle section, “Thunder in Spain,” her characters don’t lack for a cause or direction to their lives, but this proves to matter little when you find yourself on the losing side. She follows a group of five pro-Republican organizers fleeing first from Madrid to the temporary capitol, Valencia, and then to the small port of Gancia. In “The Last Night in Gancia”, which Mannin describes as “historic fact”, they spend their last hours on Spanish soil in a tense limbo, wondering whether they would be caught and executed by the Nationalists or rescued by the French or British warships circling offshore. When at last the business of embarkation begins,

[A] great motley crowd of men, and a few women, with pale strained faces, some of them with their eyes dark with misery or wet with tears because they were leaving behind everything they held dear, those they loved and might never see again, and with them the grey ashes of their dreams, some with their eyes alight with hope; for some the embarkation was tragedy, for others, in spite of everything, adventure; for some it was the end of everything, for others merely the end of a chapter.

For the revolutionaries, however, as Mannin shows in “Refugees”, their next chapter is another, duller form of limbo:

After all, when you have nothing whatsoever to do, from the time you get up, late, in the morning, till the time you go to bed in the small hours of the following morning, it does not matter how you get through the time. Time flowed over us in a grey stream, empty, endless, unmeasured–we who had lived such intense, crowded lives. Now we were lost in a vacuum of futility. We had endless political discussions that developed into impassioned arguments, voices raised, fists banged on the table, and usually someone sweeping out; we held endless futile political post-mortems. We played chess; we wrote letters, and were eaten out and in with longing for letters, for news, that never came; we made fitful attempts at learning English; we struggled with the grey labyrinth of London; we made a good deal of coffee, and we spent a good deal of our time lying on our beds and looking at the high dirty ceiling, our thoughts flowing endlessly backward.

When the war does come, however, it doesn’t prove to offer anything better in the way of a direction for most of the characters Mannin portrays. The Army comes to the rescue of a couple whose dream of running a quaint little hotel in the country by buying them out–but financial relief is a poor second best to actually seeing their dream succeed. An actress and an escaped prisoner spend a night together discovering just how well human nature can let down our hopes. A chorus girl struggling to find work gets played by a con artist, only to be dragged out of the rubble after a German bomb hits their bar. And two sets of evacuees find themselves and their hosts disappointed, then unhappy, then disgruntled and resentful. Patriotism turns out to be a pretty weak force in the face of people who simply dislike each other intensely. Mannin could not have foreseen it, but she was doing a good job of preparing her characters for the Cold War to come.

If this makes No More Mimosa sound like grim fare, I must point out that Mannin is a solid and professional story teller. She has a remarkably talent for sketching in enough details for the reader to accept the story’s setting and principals in a matter of a page or two. I often thought of Maugham while reading the book–that same sense of a writer saying to the reader, “Now, I’m going to tell you a story, and I know what I’m doing, so your job is just to read along. Shall we?” However, Mannin’s characters are, in general, a bit rougher around the edges–you wouldn’t be surprised to see some dirt under their fingernails or a bit of food in their teeth. Come to think of it, they’re a lot more like the inhabitants of Orwell’s fiction. I don’t want to oversell the book, however–it’s not “Rain” meets Keep the Aspidistra Flying. But for anyone looking for an antidote to nostalgia for the thirties and war years, No More Mimosa offers a convincing demonstration that the West had its share of grim, grey lives well before anyone came up with the phrase “Iron Curtain.”


No More Mimosa, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrolds Publishers, Ltd., 1943

Among the Dangs, by George P. Elliott (1961)

Cover of first US edition of 'Among the Dangs'I’ve never found anything written by George P. Elliott entirely satisfying–yet I keep coming back to his work.

Considered a rising talent in the 1950s, when his short stories such as “The NRACP” and “Among the Dangs” began appearing in anthologies and to be mentioned as some of the more significant works in then-contemporary American writing, Elliott was solidly placed in the literary mainstream by the 1960s, when his name often appeared alongside those of Bellow, Heller, and Roth; beginning to be seen as marginal by the start of the 1970s; and largely forgotten by the time he died at age 62 in 1980. His books are all out of print today, and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry (yet).

What happened? I think a look at his best-received book, the short story collection Among the Dangs (1961), can explain a lot.

Among the Dangs includes several stories that stand out quite starkly from most of what was being published at the time. In the title story, a black American academic and anthropologist studies and then becomes a member of a violent Amazonian tribe, the Dangs, only to flee from them in the end, in fear that he was on the brink of reverting to their more instinctual and primitive level. I remember thinking it a remarkable and memorable story when I first came across it in some anthology of contemporary short stories back in college, and that memory was the main reason I but the book on my “to read” list for this year.

Nearly forty years later, the impression left by “Among the Dangs” is not nearly so powerful. Aside from the novelty factor of a white writer adopting the voice and perspective of a black man, there is nothing revealed about the narrator that gives any sense that this was anything but an arbitrary choice by the writer. The color of his skin could just as easily have been purple for all it adds to the story. Elliott later wrote that, “My work in composing ‘Among the Dangs’ was made the easier because I was so little interested in all those aspects of the world which are recognizably arranged in a realistic story,” and this gets to one of the first problems with his fiction.

When I dug back through contemporary reviews of Among the Dangs, one theme jumped out as a constant. The Kirkus Reviews reviewer described Elliott’s outlook as “disinterested and detached. Critic Benjamin DeMott said that Elliott wrote with a “mild irony and a certain detachment from his characters.” Another wrote that Elliott “… entertains and interests us and at the same time puzzles us–puzzles me, perhaps not you–for he conveys a sense of great moral and emotional earnestness without making clear what more or what emotion he wants us to feel.” And another simply confessed defeat in the face of Elliott’s detachment: “I don’t know what George P. Elliott thinks of the people in his stories.”

Elliott’s most reprinted story also appears in Among the Dangs. Originally published in the Hudson Review in 1949, “The NRACP” is such a dryily-written satire that more than a few readers miss the joke entirely. NRACP standa for “National Relocation Authority: Colored Persons,” and the story postulates an America in which a government-run program is quietly carrying out the genocide of its black citizens. In some ways, it’s a fictional demonstration of the old saying about how to boil a frog (i.e., very slowly). Much of the story deals more with the personal dilemma of the protagonist, a relatively hapless guy torn between staying with his wife or having a fling with his younger and more attractive secretary. Only vaguely does the reader come to understand that all around, the blacks are being taken away to camps and disappearing from the streets. And Elliott’s protagonist is even slower to catch on.

A fair number of readers were shocked by the story when it first came out, and as the civil rights movement gained momentum, the violence of the story’s premise came to seem even more dramatic. Elliott was considered coarse and insensitive by liberals and viewed as mocking the beliefs of conservatives. Elliott himself said that it was the first story he ever sold that made him enough money to go out to dinner on: “So I invited Josephine Miles and some other friends out, but Josephine wouldn’t go. She would not dine on that story because she thought it was so bad, so wrong.” The America of “The NRACP” is one increasingly split between the winners and the losers–or, as Elliott puts it, “Those who get it and those who dish it out.” Of all the stories in this collection, it’s certainly the most relevant for readers in today’s America, where this sort of divide is becoming more and more apparent.

A third story, “Faq'” (a title likely to be misunderstood by most readers today), evokes the work of Borges, Kafka, and other metaphysical writers. In it, an American geographer sees a remote settlement in the Atlas mountains of Morocco while flying on an Army Air Corps mission and vows to visit and study it after the war. What he finds is a long-isolated civilization where the men spend all day worshipping numbers while the women–kept at a rough ratio of three to every male to ensure a ready workforce. The people of Faq’ have come to believe that their existence depends upon continuing the communal task of counting: “By hypothesis the highest nameable number is as far from the end as one is, and there is no end to counting. It is the function of Faq’ to test this hypothesis in the only statistically verifiable fashion, actually by counting forever.”

As with the anthropologist of “Among the Dangs,” however, the American ultimately flees and returns to the world he is more familiar with. He is determined “never to go there again, for he is sure that though he does not know what is right for men ordered perfection is wrong, and that though suffering is bad the lack of suffering is much worse.”

This last statement could easily serve as Elliott’s motto. The anthropologist gains a place among the Dangs in part through his prowess as a storyteller, and the primary story he tells them is that of the life of Christ. While not an overtly religious writer, Christian themes–particularly those of human fallibility, of sin, of the need for repentance, and of the possibility of forgiveness–are easily found throughout Elliott’s work. And he always had a moralist’s disdain for the notion that seeking freedom or pleasure would ultimately change man’s situation. He would have agreed with wittgenstein: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” As Elliott wrote in a piece in The Nation titled, “The Happiness Rat Race”, “To be sure, having the kind of fun you have to have doesn’t hurt as much as finding out what’s really wrong and doing something about it. But finally, rather than that grinning stupefaction, I’d prefer to hurt.”

Human failure is in many ways Elliott’s favorite subject. Although one critic wrote that the story, “A Family Matter”, “sounds as if it had been written as a contribution to a seminar on the novels of Miss Compton-Burnett”–and Elliott himself later admitted that he had written it as an experiment after reading several of Compton-Burnett’s novels. “That is, I felt like writing a story in which the plot problem is announced at the outset, developed in clearly marked stages, and resolved near the end, and in which all the characters are connected with the same family and speak concisely and hyperconsciously.”

In the story, an elderly millionaire returns to the place where his ex-wives and children live, in part to try to understand what led to his becoming so distant and detached from them. In the end, neither he, the ex-wives, the children, nor the reader is any more the wiser–and yet, it’s clear that the effort was both necessary and useful. Elliott was a firm believer in the necessity of trying to come to grips with the world we live in–even if that effort is likely to prove unsuccessful: “A good deal of fiction derives from the writer’s impulse to understand or cause the reader to understand the true nature of part of the world. Whether he does it for himself primarily or for the readers he wants to affect does not matter as much as that he is pressed by the need to understand the world, to order experience.”

I think this is what continues to interest me in his work: even when it’s not entirely satisfying, it always reveals an individual making a deep and serious effort to understand. As someone has probably already said, it’s probably more important to have the right questions than to have the right answers.

Though Elliott published four novels during his life, all were consistently judged interesting but ultimately unsuccessful. Many reviewers remarked that his short fiction was better than his novels. And reviewing his second story collection, An Hour of Last Things, William Peden judged that Elliott was “As much a thoughtful essayist as story-teller.” But even in his essays, Elliott could, at times, become somewhat strident and brittle. However, as Phillip Stambovsky writes in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, a few of these essays, mostly autobiographical, “are among the most original and impressive of his literary productions”: “A Brown Fountain Pen” and “A Piece of Lettuce” from A Piece of Lettuce; “Never Nothing” from Conversions; “Snarls of Beauty” from The George P. Elliott Reader. “Whatever other qualities this unnamed, unshaped age we are entering may have,” Elliott once wrote, “I hope that it will realize it needs art in order to live.” I will have to return to these essays next year, when I plan to focus on autobiographical works, to give Elliott’s art the appreciation it deserves, in its own earnest if never fully successful way.


Among the Dangs and Other Stories, by George P. Elliott
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961

The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

I recently had the chance to travel to Estonia for the first time, to attend a conference in Tallinn. In the spirit of this trip, then, I took along a copy of The Conspiracy, a collection of stories by one of the leading Estonian writers of the last 50 years, Jaan Kross. I was thoroughly impressed by the people, sights, food, and energy of life in Estonia, and once you’ve read a little of the country’s history, you realize how long and hard they have had to struggle to establish–and reestablish–their independence and to maintain their culture and way of life in the 50+ years they spent under Nazi and Soviet control.

The Conspiracy offers a particularly good fictional introduction to what the Estonians endured during that time. Kross, who was born in 1920, not long after Estonia declared its independence, reached adulthood at about the time when that independence was crushed–first by Soviets (1940-1941, starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and ending soon after the German invasion of Russia), then by the Germans (1941-1944), and then again by the Soviets, who settled in for over forty years. The stories in The Conspiracy trace this history through episodes in the life of Kross’ fictional counterpart, Peeter Mirk.

The first story, “The Wound”, is set in the time around the start of the German invasion of Poland, when Germany offered ethnic Germans in the Baltic republics the opportunity to move into settlements in recently-conquered Poland and begin the process of establishing Hitler’s precious lebensraum. Peeter Mirk’s first love, a neighbor and fellow student in Tartu University, belongs to a family with German connections who decides to accept the offer. At a farewell party, feelings of nostalgia overtake the two young people and they decide in a moment of haste to run away and get married. As they run from the restaurant through rainy streets, however, she slips and falls, getting a severe cut on her leg, forcing them to stop and go back. Their impulsive act leads, in the end, to just the first of many casualties suffered by people in Peeter’s life over the next twenty years.

Kross was able to complete law school and stay on as a member of faculty for the first years of German occupation, in part through a series of medical dodges, avoiding the “lead piping” into which many Estonian men were channeled:

And the lead pipes, as already mentioned above, were, according to these notices, two in number. One of them spewed forth its load on to the front via the notorious Bad-Tölz training camp, that is to say, via southern Bavaria after a period of three to four months. The other pipe did the same, after a couple of weeks of basic drill at the Kohila or Elva training camps. Those spewed out of the first pipe wore SS uniforms and were told that they constituted the elite of Neues Europa and of the Estonian people. The second pipe spat forth so-called “Volunteer Assistants”, who were in fact required to stay in the frontier zone in the same section as the prisoners of war stationed there.

But some of Kross’s friends were not so lucky. Even those who tried to escape to Sweden or Finland took extraordinary risks, as is illustrated in the stories “Lead Piping” and “The Stahl Grammar.” And Kross himself ended up being arrested by the Germans in 1944, only to be set free from a Tallinn prison by the first wave of Soviet troops to retake the city. Two years later, however, he was again arrested, this time on the charge of being a “bourgeois recidivist”, and was sent to the Vorkutlag complex of camps. He spent the next eight years in the Gulag, finally returning to Estonia in 1954.

Jaan Kross in a light-hearted mood, 1973
Fortunately for Kross and his readers, he was possessed of a spirit of extraordinary resilience and good humor. He was lucky, he once remarked in an interview for the Guardian, that he was imprisoned by the Soviets and not the Germans: “Such was their Ordnungsliebe –passion for order–and their savage discipline. The Soviets at least had their saving virtues of inefficiency and incompetence.” He had an intense interest in other people–indeed, at a few points in his stories he pulls himself up with a remark such as, “But why have I begun to describe him in such detail?”

And Kross works details into his writing with all his senses. The reader gets the sense not just of how things looked, but also weather, textures, sounds, and, most of all, smells:

I had keys to Uncle’s apartment. We climbed the stairs with their faint smell of polish and stepped into the hall of the apartment. For some reason (or perhaps because we entered without switching on the light) it was the smells of the apartment which impinged on my consciousness on that occasion: the faint smell of ether emanating from Uncle’s surgery into the hall and its extension which served as a waiting room; the faint smell of naphthalene which arose from the Biedermeier furniture in the living room, the faint smell of cooking oil from the dining room through which we groped our way and where rye flour pancakes fried in a drop of sunflower oil, obtained goodness knows where, had been eaten; the fragrance of Soir de Paris which seeped through his wife’s door which stood ajar; the smell of the liquor store from the chink in the bathroom door, though this could have been mere imagination, since Uncle stored his several-liter stock of spirits in large flagons which stood in the bath which was half-filled with water as a precaution against fire and air raids; and then the comically coarse yet subtle whiff of tobacco from Uncle’s own room (for he had, for donkeys’ years, been smoking a weed grown by some patient or other and prepared with rose oil in his straight-stemmed pipe).

After Kross returned to Estonia, he realized that the only way he could survive was to write things that would not be closely examined for possible counter-revolutionary themes. So he became a historical novelist, carefully disguising his criticism of Soviet rule and calls for Estonian independence through characters and situations from hundreds of years earlier. Through this work and teaching, he was able to survive to see Estonia’s return to independence in 1991, and even to sit in its first Parliament and participate in writing the country’s new constitution. He died in 2007.

Four of Kross’ books, including his best-regarded novel, The Czar’s Madman, were translated into English, by Anselm Hollo and Eric Dickens, and published by Harvill in the mid-1990s, and a further novel featuring Peeter Mirk, Treading Air, was issued in 2003. Most of these are now out of print, but recently, Quercus Publishing began releasing an English translation of his most popular work in Estonia, a historical trilogy, Between Three Plagues, starting with the first volume, The Ropemaker.

In a piece for the Estonian Literary Magazine, Kross once wrote of the disadvantages and benefits of being a writer from a small, much-invaded country. Starting out as a writer at perhaps the worst time in his country’s history, he became “not only a writer of a small nation, but a writer who had lost his country.” When, after fifty years’ wait, he had the chance to reclaim his country, he was burdened

… with only the normal troubles of the literature of a small nation: linguistic isolation, the indifference with which the world mostly treats us and our helpless resignation in the face of it -instead of trying to fight it with every possible means within the limits of good taste. Most important of all is the sense of proportion: the amount of time for all sorts of meetings where these means are being discussed, should be reasonable. The rest of the time a writer should stay at home–the smaller the nation of the writer, the more he ought to stay at home, at his desk, writing truly remarkable books.

When Kross died in 2007, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves saluted him in a funeral service that was broadcast live on Estonian State Television: “He was one of those who kept fresh the spirits of the people and made us ready to take the opportunity of restoring Estonia’s independence.”

The Conspiracy can also be borrowed in electronic format from the Open Library: (Link).


The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross
London: Harvill Press, 1995

The Conspiracy

The Russian-Estonians, from The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

In a year such as 1947, a Russian-born Estonian was only a zemlyak, a compatriot of mine, to a most problematical degree. Such trusties with their partly, or wholly, unidiomatic phrases, their doubting and distrustful eyes who had, since the war, seeped into the university, from the dean of faculty right down to posts among the teaching staff and special departments, and in everyday life from executive committee and militia down to the local apartment block administration, had instilled in me a feeling which was as mixed as what must have been going on inside them themselves: pity and watchfulness.

At any rate, we home-grown Estonians and Russian-born Estonians had lived such different lives on our respective sides of the border that our mutual alienation had become inevitable. On both sides of the border irrational things had been said and printed about the other side. In Estonia, hungry children were supposed to go about scavenging for food in dustbins. While in Russia, claimed the Estonian daily Paevaleht in, for instance, 1937, the year of the great show trials, it had emerged that men who had been the vanguard of revolution only fifteen years before were now infiltrators, traitors and foreign agents who had with their bare hands mixed broken glass into the butter sold to the proletariat…

Ten years earlier, nothing but such news items were to be found about Russia in our papers. And never a whisper of protest or denial from their side of the border, something which would have been quite natural in the circumstances, had these proved to be lies. So you were bound to conclude: there must be some truth in the matter. And this then led one to ask: which side had gone mad over there, the courts or those who appeared before them? And to answer without hesitation: the courts. For if the courts had been normal and the accused, therefore, mad, then the mass-executions of those accused would not have been able to take place. And Russia’s Estonians lived right in the thick of this madness, in this oppressive atmosphere of mistrust which resulted from this madness, which Russia allowed especially to afflict the minorities on her western borders.

So that people who were used to all this seemed, according to my first impression, and soon a priori, more problematical, evasive, shifty-eyed and ill-defined than others. Especially if they tried (and as far as I could observe, they always tried) to justify that what had been, and was still occurring in their country was right and proper in itself; unequivocally right and proper that is, according to the conversations of uneducated people, but to a more problematic degree according to those arrested – well, anyway, right and proper, not always in that cosy petit-bourgeois sense of the expression, but in a nobler and more general sense.

from “The Ashtray”, in The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)