Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov (1971)

I was skeptical when I started reading the poet Howard Nemerov‘s 1971 collection, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions. It gave all the appearances of being a minor work–a writer working outside his primary form; an early volume from a small (if well-respected) press; short (barely 121 pages); a title suggesting nothing more than a hastily-applied label for a miscellany. And the first few stories are more fables than stories and more jokes than fables.

But I hung in, and with the fourth story, entered a new class of writing. Almost like a specimen brought into focus under a microscope, a wholly unfamiliar perspective came into view, minute in detail, with wildly exaggerated features. In “Bon Bons,” a lonely widow, Mrs. Melisma, decides one day to undertake an odd and original study:

Inspired, she purchased a pack offiling cards and began, as she ate away, to note down a Descriptive Catalogue of Chocolates, measuring the dimensions and identifying the surface characteristics of each chocolate, and correlating with these both the objective qualities and the subjective sensations communicated to her by the inside. A series of rather odd thoughts began to form itself and emerge from the darkness.

Her dedicated and meticulously-observed research quickly reaches an inevitable obstacle: she realizes that she does not like chocolate. And yet she carries on, driving herself to penetrate her sensations ever more deeply, opening her imagination to new associations, venturing into new realms of philosophy, and eventually, into nihilism:

She perceived, in effect, that what she ate was not chocolate at all, but only anticipation, suspense; she was eating, as much as anything, not the chocolates themselves, but only the moment between one and the next; now, what did that moment taste of?

Nothing. It tasted of nothing at all. Mrs Melisma wept.

And finally, she is overtaken by a vision of wondrous breadth and tenderness, in a passage that reminded me of that amazing scene in Gravity’s Rainbow that begins, “Near her battery one night, driving Somewhere in Kent …”:

In which she saw the jungles, and, beside the jungles, the sugar cane in fields, the plantations of nougat and almond, the herds of cows giving their milk to be turned into fondant; she saw the black men and the brown men, naked to the waist, going among the trees and through the fields where lonely white men stood with rifles; she saw the great white ships riding, she saw the mumbling stainless steel factories from whose monotonous and automated ruminations a myriad moments of chocolate filled with mysterious sweetness came forth—endless they seemed—; and she saw the candy shops, with their cloying smells and their attendants dressed like nurses in starched uniforms; and she saw by miracle in a million rooms the lonely hunger that existed for the sweetness of life, that sweat and starvation and cold-eyed greed equally and helplessly competed for; and somewhere in all this a child sat, a monstrously chubby child with open mouth, who stretched out pudgy hands before him while he blubbered for the agonizing beauty of this world.

From this point on, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions rolls through a series of imaginative and philosophical whirlwinds, each carrying off in their force other wonderful fragments of prose. “The Native in the World,” for example, opens with this stunning sentence:

The climb from sleep was difficult, a struggle up a staircase of soft pillows into which he sank again and again, drowsily defeated, from which he clumsily climbed again to a sight of the room that, seen in the equivocal wisdom of sleep, seemed to him any room, or all the rooms, in which he had ever slept, or ever been at home.

In “The Nature of the Task,” Nemerov focuses his microscope on the smallest of subjects–literally nothing more than a man in an empty room–and demonstrates how quickly close observation can verge into madness: “But where—this problem proposed itself inevitably and at once—where did simply looking divide itself from looking and thinking at once?” It’s a powerful illustration of a comment Wallace Shawn makes in “My Dinner with Andre”: “I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware … of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant … I think it would just blow your brains out.”

Not every story in this little book has such mind-expanding power, but a good half-dozen do, and those are certainly worth rediscovery. This was Nemerov’s second collection of short stories. His first, A Commodity of Dreams , was published in 1959 and I have ordered a copy in hopes of finding more.

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions is available online at OpenLibrary.org (link).


Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov
Boston: David R. Godine, 1971

Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green (1962)

I’ve probably looked past a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Peter Green’s Habeas Corpus fifty times or more while browsing through used bookstores over the decades and looked right past it. But on the look-out for short story collections now and having the good fortune to spend an hour in one of Seattle’s last great used bookstores, Magus Books, a while ago, I finally saw it for the first time.

Habeas Corpus provided an excellent counterpoint to Hugh Walpole’s The Thirteen Travellers, which I’d read just before. Most of Peter Green’s stories are set 30-40 years after Walpole’s, but Green’s England is a very different world. It’s been through a second world war and a long grey time of rationing. The upper class is in retreat, the working class is getting into university, and everyone is drinking and smoking–hard. The veneer of English gentility is wearing through to the wood in spots.

Jack Newhouse, the … well, one can hardly say protagonist, once you’ve read what he does … of Green’s title story, for example, is quite the contrast to Walpole’s dandy, Absalom Jay:

… somehow an ineffectual figure despite the carefully calculated raffishness–bottlegreen corduroys, the old tweed jacket patched like a prep school master’s at elbows and cuffs, blond hair not so thick as it had been, too fine anyway to be worn quite so long by a man in his over-late thirties, blown now every which way by the tangling wind…. A fair if fashionable judge of College wine; slightly suspect politically, and apt to appear on television programmes rather more often than the unspoken norm allowed….

Newhouse proves to be just the sort of heel you might suspect from this description, but his sort of misdeed is less one of great evil than of the petty, cowardly kind–not doing wrong, just simply failing to do right. Many of Green’s characters are compromisers and prevaricators. Ideals are just bubbles waiting to be popped, as in “The Tea Party,” in which a naive but ambitious young student comes to realize the truth about an idolized professor: “And Grandison, his old world in shreds, saw from the heart of his confusion that the Professor was as naked as himself. Do not reject me, cried the stony mask beneath its stone.”

Illustration from the cover of the Signet paperback edition of “Habeas Corpus”

You might think from this that Habeas Corpus is a drab, depressing book, but in all but perhaps one of Green’s eight stories, there is a strong narrative, a sense of a revelation yet to come, that makes for irresistible reading. His characterizations are often enhanced through just the simplest details, and in each story, there is a vivid sense of place. Thumbing back through the book as I write this, I find myself recalling the settings as if I’d actually seen them. I tend to skip around stories in a collection, particularly if there is, as in this case, no evident pattern or sequence intended, but I read straight through Habeas Corpus and was only tempted to look elsewhere during “Proof of Identity,” which was a throw-away compared to the other stories in the book. It’s a shame that this is Green’s one and only collection of stories.

Although Green attended Charterhouse, one of the poshest public schools, his time at Cambridge was interrupted by the war, during which he spent five years in the R.A.F. in the heat and dirt of India and Burma, where everyone’s finer points eventually got blunted. After finishing with a degree in classics at Trinity, he scrabbled along for some years as a journalist until moving to Greece, where he wrote several works of fiction. By the time that Habeas Corpus was published in the U.S., however, he had moved into teaching and writing classical history, which has remained his focus ever since (he is still on the faculty of the University of Iowa as an adjunct professor at 92). Habeas Corpus was his last work of fiction.


Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962

The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole (1920)

I put off my plan to devote a year’s worth of posts to neglected short story writers and collections for a year when I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave my year of the neglected woman writer quite yet. So I stretched that year into two and have made a pretty poor start of things by putting off this year’s project until–Jeepers, the middle of March. Yes, life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

In any case and not to procrastinate further, let me start things off with a lovely package of ripping yarns: Hugh Walpole’s 1920 collection, The Thirteen Travellers. I’ve wanted to cover this book ever since reading its first story, “Absalom Jay,” which manages to be both satirical and heart-tugging in its portrait of an aging and forgotten fop.

At the height of the Yellow Book era of the late 1890s, Absalom Jay was the perfect embodiment of the London dandy, caricatured in Punch and other magazines:

Everyone always noticed his clothes. But here again one must be fair. It may not have been altogether his clothes that one noticed. From very early years his hair was snow-white, and he wore it brushed straight back from his pink forehead in wavy locks. He wore also a little white tufted Imperial. He had an eyeglass that hung on a thick black cord. His favourite colour was a dark blue, and with this he wore spats (in summer of a truly terrific whiteness), a white slip, black tie, and pearl pin. He wore wonderful boots and shoes and was said to have more of these than any man in London. It was also said that his feet were the smallest (masculine) in the British Isles.

But when Walpole finds Absalom, a year or so after the Armistice, society as he had known it–which had been Society with a capital S–had been left behind, one of the war’s many victims, and good manners and light conversation no longer gained one reliable invitations to dinner parties and dances. He is now an old man, whose living has become increasingly tenuous due to a bit of imprudent speculation just before the war, and whose elbows and welcomes have worn exceedingly thin.

Absalom is one of Walpole’s thirteen travellers–all residents of Horton’s, a respectable residential hotel somewhere between Picadilly and St. James’ Square. Some of them, like Absalom, are moving down, some are moving up, and others are just passing through. For each, Walpole constructs an efficient, well-balanced, and soundly-built story as dependable as Mr. Nix, the manager of Horton’s. He even tosses in a jolly good ghost story.

One could see in The Thirteen Travellers a predecessor to Vicki Baum’s best-seller of a decade later, Grand Hotel, but this is format that’s been around since at least the time of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales: the linked story collection. In Walpole’s case, the link is Horton’s Hotel and the transitional time just after the Great War and before the Twenties started to roar. His cast ranges from young to old, rich to poor, nobility to working class, but they share a common set of English values and prejudices. Not that Walpole is so obtuse that he can’t see that some of these values got banged out of shape in the war and are rapidly being replaced by harsher facts.

Hugh Walpole was one of the most successful English writers of his time, but his reputation took a serious hit after W. Somerset Maugham mocked him in fictional form as the sycophantic social climber, Alton Kear, in his novel Cakes and Ale. By the time he died in 1941, he was considered such a joke that his Time obituary dismissed his work with remarks such as, “He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English.” Since then, however, some of his works, particularly the six novels of the Herries Chronicle, have remained in print and held a small but loyal following. In recent years, his standing has been restored somewhat, but an honest critic would have to acknowledge that he is better remembered as a story-teller than as an artist. And his ghost stories in particular are well worth seeking out and now easily available in the collection, All Souls’ Night, released last year from Valancourt Books.


The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole
London: Hutchinson & Company, 1920