I’m pretty sure this is the first book written by a member of the House of Lords I’ve included on this site. I came across The Cucumber King and Other Stories while looking for short story collections on the Open Library, and downloaded a copy to my tablet. I had no idea who Edwin Samuel was, and it was only when preparing this piece that I discovered that he was, in fact, better known as Edwin Samuel, 2nd Viscount Samuel. Not just a member of the House of Lords but an officer in the Jewish Legion in World War One who’d had Private David Ben-Gurion serving under him, and a long-time administrator of British Palestine. And he’d written four collections of short stories, starting with A Cottage in Galilee (1958) and continuing on to My Friend Musa (1963), The Cucumber King (1965), and finishing with The Man Who Liked Cats (1974).
After finishing another book on a recent flight, that I opened the file with Samuel’s book–for no better reason than that it was the next one listed–and began to read. The book opens with “The Cucumber King,” in which a fat and powerful Hollywood producer and his starlet third wife visit the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Although ostensibly on vacation, the producer has no idea how to properly relax, and so has brought along a film crew to help make a home movie to die for of their trip. Samuel clearly agrees with Blake that a lovely bird in a cage “puts all Heaven in a rage,” and manages to give the producer a just reward and leave the wife in the arms of a handsome and gentle Cambodian man.
The exotic setting and black humor of “The Cucumber King” reminded me of a number of Graham Greene’s short stories, as did a good share of the rest of Samuel’s stories. Like Greene, he clearly seems to have done his share of globe-trotting, as his settings range everywhere from Tokyo and Shanghai to the Middle East and Italy to London, Ireland, and New York City. He’s also comfortable with travel through time and space, taking us to “Israel in the Year 2000 A.D” (spoiler alert–no Internet, mobile phones, or Hamas) and the waiting room for Heaven.
Samuel’s taste in fiction tends toward the humorous, although with more than an occasional appetite for bitter irony and poetic justice. Death pops up on a regular basis and Samuel is not at all reluctant to shove one of his characters in front of an oncoming train to make his point. In “The Man Who Was Too Late,” Samuel leaves a fellow member of the House of Lords reflecting on the positive points of his death: “Perhaps it is lucky that I’ve now been run over by a taxi and killed–in my 64th year. Better than lingering on, with a small pension, but no wife or children or grandchildren.” As he wait for the angel to fetch his raiments, Lord FitzHugh ponders what to expect of Heaven:
Presumably, once I get beyond the Pearly Gates, it’ll be quite different. Rather splendid, in fact, in compensation for all that we’ve had to suffer on earth. I do wonder what Heaven will be like. The ardent believers, especially in earlier times, were quite sure they’d find a beautiful landscape, always sunny and warm —not too warm, I hope; I’ve had my fill of that in the tropics–with green lawns and shady trees, the murmur of a waterfall, soft music, good food—what a relief after that terrible cooking in East Africa. Some nice people, I hope–beautiful women, like this Angel, for example–after all those frightful Colonial wives. A few interesting men, too; not those awful Sports Club bores in Nairobi.
I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in The Cucumber King. They are a fine combination of British attitudes and rituals, exotic settings, and a rich sense that God has more than a few good laughs at our expense. On the other hand, they are also more like the sort of thing you might find in Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post–if they’d published stories written by a British Jew: magazine fiction, in other words, which means a good story, a touch of novelty, but nothing too unsettling to one’s sense that whatever might be wrong with the world can be put right with a gin and tonic.
The Cucumber King and Other Stories, by Edwin Samuel London/New York/Toronto: Abelard-Schuman, 1956
Thanks to a long and heated debate championed by the members of our Society, the Rabbit Stew and Fish Soup Plant has just inaugurated a new workshop dedicated to opening the newly sealed tins.
At the new workshop which is called The Can Opener, the newly canned tins of rabbit stew and fish soup are reopened, drained of liquid, and the chunks of meat and fish are reconstituted and taken back to their original habitat, where they are released.
We herewith wish to express our sincere gratitude to the management of the Rabbit Stew and Fish Soup Plant, who have at last come to understand the true meaning of humanitarianism.
Most of Örkény’s pieces are closer to jokes or pared-down fables than short stories. “Life Should Be So Simple,” for example, is just a six-item list:
Remove fire extinguisher from bracket
Approach source of fire
Replace extinguisher on bracket
“Official government report published in the wake of the triumph of the principles of communism” is merely the statement, “According to a recent statement by government spokesman Károly K. Károly, István Balogh, Sr., stable boy at the Bábolna State Farmers Co-operative, has just started his regular yearly vacation.” Fortunately, the publishers let us in on the joke with a footnote explaining that, “The Hungarian Communist party’s daily newspaper, Népszabadság, every year announced, Kádár János, the First Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party started his regular yearly vacation.”
A fair number of the items in One Minute Stories have a similar flavor of being the sort of joke that takes having lived in Hungary under Communist rule for a decade or two to fully appreciate. I was reminded several times of the little stories that Austrian writer Karl Kraus wrote to mock the Nazis and other forms of authoritarianism. Still, anyone with a taste for sly satirical or absurdist humor can enjoy these amuse-bouches. And, as Örkény points out in his “Handling Instructions,” “They also have the added advantage of saving us time. While the soft-boiled egg is boiling or the number you are dialing answers (provided it is not engaged, of course) you have ample time to read one of these short stories….”
You can find more selections of Örkény’s one-minute stories here, here, and on the English portion of his commemorative website here.
One Minute Stories and More One Minute Stories, by István Örkény, both translated by Judith Sollosy Budapest, Hungary: Corvina Books, Ltd., 2001 and 2006
In my post on Gavin Lambert’s 1959 book, The Slide Area, I wrote that the character sketch was his forte, and the best proof of that is The Goodby People (spelled “Goodbye” in all subsequent reissues). In it, Lambert puts all his talents into crafting three remarkable portraits: Susan Ross, a one-time model and widow of a wealthy movie producer and businessman; Gary Carson, a draft dodging golden boy making his way through the world one bed at a time; and Lora Chase, a long-faded yet legendary actress–sort of a Greta Garbo–who attracts as an unlikely follower a young, blonde, motorcycle-riding woman.
As in The Slide Area, the challenge is that these characters from the fringes of the movie world, are well-practiced in adapting themselves to the expectations of those around them and hence, somewhat at a loss to know just who they are themselves. Born in Arizona and raised in Nebraska, Susan Ross takes on the look of a sleek, beautiful woman, a sophisticate accustomed from birth to the finer things. She marries a man the opposite of her sun-leathered, taciturn father: “He had a dry disenchanted humor, a fascinating inside knowledge of shady political deals and the secrets of the Pentagon and the FBI, and that aura of joylessness which surrounds so many rich, powerful and clever people and makes them truly dangerous.”
When her husband dies, Susan has money, influence, and reputation enough to carry her in luxury to her last days. She throws enormous parties at the spectacular home she has inherited: “I saw Susan surrounded by all the sons of the millionaires, and a movie actor with long sideburns, and I think a rock group, and various girls. She sat on a high-backed chair and it looked like a throne.” Unfortunately, as a widow and not a wife, as a former model and not a model, and as a farm girl long gone from the farm, she has, as the narrator puts it, “no tribe.” Finally, she builds a stark modernist house high on a ridge above Malibu and retreats there to study self-consciousness. “It’s a perfect place, up here,” she tells the narrator when he calls to check on her. “I’ve come to realize the mind can achieve anything so long as reality doesn’t get in its way.”
The narrator–as in The Slide Area something of a stand-in for Lambert himself, only this time ready to acknowledge his homosexuality–meets Gary Carson through a friend, an aimless heir whose hobby is “sheltering young wanderers and fugitives.” A year or so later, he calls up the narrator and invites his way into the man’s bed. “I am never seduced,” he later remarks.
Gary, it becomes clear, is without prejudice when it comes to his partners. Looking through the young man’s luggage, the narrator finds a bundle of letters:
Kept neatly in their envelopes and packaged together with a rubber band, they were notes from about thirty different people, all over the last two years. He’d apparently had brief affairs with most of them; the rest made offers…. They came from a French girl at the Sorbonne, another who was a model, the male secretary of an Italian industrialist, the wife of the same industrialist, a movie actress in Rome who’d had a walk-on in a Fellini film, a girl once quite well known in Hollywood movies and now married to an English producer, from whom there was also a letter. Gary had apparently spent a month with the wife in St. Tropez and ten days with the husband in Tangier.
Gary at one point refers to himself as “A blank envelope. But, address it, and it’s just another bill, or a love letter.” After a short spell living with the narrator, enjoying the attention, fine wines, and cultural refinements, Gary moves on, disappearing for a while. “He was never quite here, was he?,” friends ask. In keeping with the times, when Gary makes contact again, he is living in the hills outside L. A., part of a small cult family gathered around a would-be Jesus going by the name “Godson.” When the narrator asks Gary whether he ever worries about being arrested for draft evasion, Gary shakes his head: “That’s the future, and it doesn’t exist.” In other words, his quest is not to find himself, but to leave his past and ties to his identity behind.
In a brief epilogue, the narrator overhears a conversation between one of his friends, a very successful screenwriter on the prowl, and a young woman who’s been stranded at his house in Malibu: “Is there anyone you should call, Frances? Anyone who’ll be wondering where you are?” “No. There’s no one in the world,” she replies. Lambert leaves the reader to wonder: are these people saying goodbye to the worlds they came from? Or have their worlds said goodbye to them? The Goodby People is itself a sad farewell to the optimism that briefly lit up the initial innocence of flower power, sexual liberation, and the swinging Sixties.
The Goodby People, by Gavin Lambert New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971
Summer is always reluctant to go. Sometimes it makes a false departure and comes back for Christmas. For a few weeks now, signs have presaged the end. One night it rains gently. A wind from the ocean swiftly wraps a sparkling afternoon in fog. Electric storms break out over the desert at night, salvos of thunder are heard and prongs of lightning flash like exclamations in the sky. By the end of summer they are deeply tanned, yet somehow autumn creeps into their eyes. Each time they scan the ocean with is swimmers waiting for surf to ride, it seems like a last glance before saying good-bye.
While summer fades, the city still spreads and grows. Much of the growing you wouldn’t notice. You pass a truck in the night, drawing a new frame-house; there are always plenty of these, set down and lost in the general sprawling pattern. But sometimes a landmark disappears, like the old pier between Santa Monica and Venice. Replacing the shabby arcades of obsolete peep-shows and makeshift booths is a bright new pleasure-cape, clean and synthetic. Neptune’s sculpture presides over an artificial lake with colored fountains and large aerated bubbles. Walk past it while the music plays, taking the moving stairway that lifts you above tree-like chandeliers with outstretched branches of light, and step into an elevator. It doesn’t move, but in the center of it a transparent column fills up with water, to make you think you’re going beneath the sea. You find yourself in a vast dim cavity called Neptune’s Kingdom. You walk round a tank with glass walls. It represents the ocean bed, but there is no water, only an illusion created by the play of light. Stuffed barracudas and other outsize creatures spin slowly round on wires. Neptune watches from his throne. Coral, marine growths and shells, all too brightly tinted, litter the depths. Less than half a mile away from this dry electrical kingdom is the Pacific itself, pale and streaked with patches of seaweed. At this moment it is secretly swallowing up ton after ton of disinfected garbage.
For other kingdoms have been created. Beyond Venice, there used to be a desolate stretch of sand dunes and waste ground, planted here and there with oil derricks. Then came a regiment of black squat cylindrical tanks. The face of the landscape changed; factory chimneys, scaffolding, machinery, wire fences, converged upon the empty beaches. Everything feels silent, looks unattended, but inside the tanks the city’s garbage is being chemically purified, then rushed along an underground channel and poured into the ocean.
To the north, cupped in the mountains, are missile bases. KEEP OUT. Constructions point skywards from a bulldozed desert. Old newspapers and empty cans of beer lie on the ground. Higher up, new houses are being built. The view should be good.
So the refuse is purified and pumped; the missiles are loaded; the lifeguard watches from his sunny tower; stuffed fish ponderously circle a waterless cage; and, in his frame house, a man wakes up to find he has a neighbor.
fromThe Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959
“The action begins just before Christmas 1956 and ends two years later,” Gavin Lambert writes at the The Slide Area. From that, a reader could easily conclude that the book is a novel, and, indeed, Lambert refers to his stories as “sections.” I’m not sure that it makes much of a different whether one labels The Slide Area as short story collection or novel. It’s a marvellously well-written work of fiction regardless how it’s categorized.
As anyone who’s lived in Los Angeles knows, the city sits on the wrong side of a great geological fault line and its hills aren’t much more than temporarily-stabilized piles of earth and rock and have a tendency to fall away in great hunks with little notice, taking with them the big, showy, and expensive houses built along their flanks and ridges. So L. A. residents get used to seeing “Slide Area” signs, usually surrounded by scattered chunks of dirt offering hints of things to come. What goes up must come down–and afterwards, there’s room to erect yet another showcase home.
In much the same way, L. A. residents get used to see people falling from great heights while others are fighting their way up. The Slide Area is filled with such stories. There is the Countess Osterberg-Steblechi, “a great aristocratic wreck,” “a balloon blown up into roughly human shape and ready to burst.” But she has enough cash still left to entice her hangers-on to stage, in “The End of the Line,” a grand tour of the Continent that never actually takes her beyond the confines of her living room. It’s a cleverly-told tale but by far the weakest in the book, the closest Lambert ever comes to a stock magazine short story.
His forte is the character sketch. But in Lambert’s case, his characters are as shifting and unstable as ground they walk upon. They aspire to leave Nebraska or Oklahoma or Colorado behind, change their names, change their looks, lose their histories, and become what everyone else wants to be. Of Julie Forbes, a Joan Crawford/Bette Davis-like eternal star, coming into her living room as if walking onto a stage, he writes,
Her skin was golden, her figure trim and pliant as a young girl’s. She had been created a moment ago. There was no childhood, no past, nothing. I thought of a joke about the mortuaries in California: they supply human ashes to cannibals in the South Seas, who make them flesh by adding water. Instant people, like instant coffee. Julie Forbes, I decided, was an instant person. That must be her secret. Every few years she was reduced to ashes, then reconstituted in a new form. Different. Shining. Instant.
And of all Lambert’s characters, perhaps the greatest is Los Angeles itself. The Slide Area is studded with some of the best writing about L. A. ever put on paper:
Los Angeles is not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes….
How to grasp something unfinished yet always remodelling itself, changing without a basis for change? So much visible impatience to be born, to grow, such wild tracts of space to be filled: difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert. Because of the long confusing distances, the streets are empty of walking people, full of moving cars. Between where you are and where you are going to be is a no-man’s land. At night the neon signs glitter and the shop windows are lighted stages, but hardly anyone stops to look. A few people huddle at coffee stalls and hamburger bars. Those dark flat areas are parking lots, crammed solid.
The city itself is a mirror of the constant metamorphosis of inhabitants. And, of course, the combination of shape-shifting people and ever-remodelling city creates a reality that’s almost unreal. Looking down upon the city from high on one of its unstable hills, one of Lambert’s characters observes, “Looking down on the straight intersecting lines of pink and yellow and green is like finding a vast abstract painting laid out on the earth. It has nothing at all to do with living.”
When I first read The Slide Area about four years ago, I dog-eared at least two dozen pages featuring this sort of striking writing, and reading it again recently, I dog-eared at least a couple dozen more. Indeed, I could easily just fill this piece with quotes from the book. Although best known for his novel, Inside Daisy Clover, which was made into an even better-known movie starring Natalie Wood, “Inside Daisy Clover”, Lambert deserves to be recognized for The Slide Area, which ranks with The Last Tycoon, The Day of the Locust, and anything Raymond Chandler ever wrote about Los Angeles.
The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959
Viola Meynell worked hard as a writer all her adult life, publishing short stories, novels, and nonfiction to critical acclaim, steady if not exceptional sales, and the respect of her peers, helped support D. H. Lawrence in hard times and brought Moby Dick back to recognition as a classic, and helped her husband run a productive farm in Sussex. And for all that, she hasn’t got a single book in print today.
Collected Stories, which Meynell was helping to edit when she died in October 1956, offers perhaps the best introduction to her work. These 17 stories, compiled from previous collections–Young Mrs. Cruse (1925); Kissing the Rod, and Other Stories (1937); First Love and Other Stories (1947); and Louise and Other Stories (1954)–as well as several stories published in The New Yorker a year or so before her death. As an anonymous reviewer once wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “The delicate and assured talent of Viola Meynell is admirably suited to the short-story form. Dealing in qualities and emotions which it would be easy to overemphasize in a novel, she is discreetly content with the brevity suited to a fragment of the truth.”
Some of the stories are not much more than fragments. In “Compassionate Leave,” a wife works out with her husband what to write to tell their son he will have to come to tend the farm because the father has fallen and shattered his leg. “Half of a Bargain” is nothing more than a few pages of dialogue between husband and wife, along with a few glimpses into their thoughts–but enough to show us the gulf separating them:
“Oh–surely–isn’t it something you could possibly put off?”
He hesitated. If he had had anything special to do he might have put it off. It was all the infinite chances that attended him on his rounds that he could not give up–the casual encounters, the attractive bits of business cropping up at odd turns, the knack of finding the way to where there was most to be gained, which made his daily life a pleasant adventure. One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.
“One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.” That is just the sort of fine observation one finds throughout this collection. A fellow neglected short story writer, Elizabeth Bibesco, once wrote that, “With Miss Meynell, you find yourself continually loitering over a phrase. You walk into a word as you might walk into a patch of sunlight.” As in this passage from “The Letter,” in which a pregnant farm girl being hounded by her parents to write to the man responsible walks through a morning field: “She had not walked far through the first field before each of her ankles was bound round and round with threads of moist cobweb, spun between one stalk and another. If those threads had been cords, she would have been a close prisoner, neatly caught and fastened up. But as it was she went idly through the stubble, unconscious that with each step she was bursting bonds, dragging chains, and escaping a thousand prisons.”
“This art is built straight upon reality, reality observed with such precision that perception not usually given to the physical eye seems to be involved,” Louise Bogan wrote in a review of Young Mrs. Cruse. She “notices the gestures, the inflections, the turns in manner and speech by which people betray themselves, the slight signs which Ibsen marked, from behind his unread newspaper, during long hours in cafes.” Bogan was a great fan of Meynell’s work and often recommended it to her acquaintances. “It is at first difficult to understand Bogan’s high opinion of Meynell,” Elizabeth Frank writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Louise Bogan: A Portrait:
… whose ordinary, middle-class characters are immersed in utterly quotidian lives. The novels are singularly free of melodrama, plottiness, and contrived effects. Not even the faintest trace of social criticism or political awareness invests the page. Yet it is just this fidelity to the domestic and insular scale of her characters’ lives that allows her to render them with great psychological keenness and extraordinary warmth and intuition.
In some stories, the lives she depicts are, in Thoreau’s words, ones of quiet desperation. In “Diminuendo,” a woman driving home with her husband through a bitter winter night finds in her thoughts a moment of happiness. “It was the kind of happiness allowed to a diminished life, the happiness of the wretchedest woman on earth.” In others, Meynell reveals comedy with the lightest touch:
The Butts were staying with the Longstaffes–very successfully too. It was not one of those plans, hearty in origin, which are wished at an end almost as soon as they have begun. The tensions which can exist when a middle-aged couple forsake their own surroundings to go visiting, and when another middle-aged couple are invaded in their Englishman’s castle, did not arise.
It might be only a small thing, but it so happened that four armchairs of absolutely equal comfort and accessibility to the fire–for it was winter–were part of the equipment of the living-room. Here no one usurped, no one was dethroned. Also there was no false delicacy about the necessity to be always on parade as hosts and guests. In those four armchairs could sit four people with four books, silent and separate, congratulating themselves that among less sensible people a futile stream of remarks might have been considered essential.
It’s ironic that Meynell’s very last stories were published in The New Yorker, for her technique and tone were consistent with what some have called The New Yorker formula: brief, spare anecdotes, really more sketches of incidents that tell the reader much about their characters while almost nothing seems to happen. Like a fine liqueur, however, in the hands of a master, even formulas can produce something consistently wonderful.
Collected Stories, by Viola Meynell London: Max Reinhardt Limited, 1957
For a dozen years or so, starting in the late 1930s, Edward Newhouse was one of The New Yorker’s most prolific fiction writers, working with editor Gus Lobrano in an impressive stable that included John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, and Jerome Weidman. Granville Hicks rated Newhouse “high in the ranks of contemporary short-story writers,” and a Publisher’s Weekly once wrote that, “If I were to receive in the same mail new books by the dozen best writers of fiction in America, Edward Newhouse’s would be the first I’d read.” But hardly anyone has heard of Newhouse for the simple reason that he stopped writing.
Between 1934 and 1954, Newhouse published seven books–four novels and three short story collections. Then nothing, then a few stories in The New Yorker’s in 1957, then nothing more aside from a short autobiographical piece, “Hungarians,” published in The New Yorker’s in 1965. Unlike the magazine’s legendary Joseph Mitchell, who came to work for decades without producing a single article, however, the issue in Newhouse’s case wasn’t writer’s block. He simply didn’t need the work.
Born Ede Ujhazi in Budapest in 1911, Newhouse emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1923. His father, an unemployed actor (who named his son after a famous 19th century Hungarian actor), was simply desperate to find work. Thrown into the New York City public school system without a word of English, Newhouse weathered a fair number of schoolyard fights until he established his street smarts. After a short attempt at City College, he spent the better part of a year riding the rails around the country and looking for work. In the end, he came back to New York and got a job covering sports for the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, and wrote a novel, You Can’t Sleep Here (1934), based on his time as a hobo. He went on to join the staff of The New Masses, an experience he later satirized in his third novel, The Hollow of the Wave (1949).
He had already published a second novel, This is Your Day (1937), before placing his first story with The New Yorker in 1939, and his first collection of stories, Anything Can Happen, appeared soon afterward in 1941. Around this time, he met and married Dorothy DeLay, a classical violinist, and became friends with another rising star at The New Yorker, John Cheever. Cheever later said that he and Newhouse shared “an inability to draw the parts of [their] lives together.”
Joining the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, Newhouse was selected to attend Officer Candidate School and quickly found his niche as a public relations man for the service. He finished up as a lieutenant colonel, writing speeches and reports for General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, the Army Air Corps commander and working in the same Pentagon office as James Gould Cozzens, whose diary of the experience was later published as A Time of War. Newhouse went straight back to work for The New Yorker right after separating from the Army. He published a third collection, of short stories dealing with childhood, The Iron Chain, in 1946.
Many are Called (1951) was his last collection. Thirty-nine of the stories in the book were from The New Yorker. The stories are arranged thematically. The three shortest and least interesting sections gather stories based on characters gathered around a bar (“At Jake’s”), a candy-and-cigar store (“A George’s”), and from Newhouse’s time as a hobo (“En Route”). These are more sketches than complete stories, and none rises above the level of an imitation Ring Lardner.
The book opens with “In Edgerton,” six stories set in a fictional town north of New York City, and with one of the best stories in the whole book, “My Brother’s Second Funeral.” In it, the narrator reflects on the attitudes of his home town to the burial of his brother, a war hero killed in Italy now with the local chapter of the American Legion named after him. Barely ten pages long, it somehow manages to capture so much about the ways in which American men attempt–sincerely, pretentiously, ineffectually–with life. “He was my friend, and I’ll never have another one like him,” the narrator observes. “Grown men can’t make friends, not really, not like boys. That piece of steel at Salerno killed the only man that ever knew what I was all about.”
The stories in “Waiting” could easily remind readers of Newhouse’s friend Cheever. Set in and around New York City, they are all about people poised on the edge of a transition. A man takes a bus tour of Manhattan on his last day before entering the Army. A man tries to contain his thoughts and emotions after quitting his job. A woman whose husband is serving in the Pacific decides to move back into the city after an awkward time living in suburban Westchester. In each, Newhouse displays what short story expert William Peden called “his own special kind of genius for the usual.”
The best pieces in the book, however, can be found in “The Captains Depart,” which collects stories clearly drawn from Newhouse’s own experiences on active duty. Though he spent most of his time in the Army Air Corps in the relatively comfortable position of a speechwriter and press liaison, Newhouse did accompany senior officers on numerous trips overseas, saw many different aspects of life in the Air Corps, and seems to have flown as an observer on a least a couple of combat missions.
This variety of contacts is reflected in the ten stories in “The Captains Depart.” Some are set stateside, where the safety and petty concerns of base life can still be unexpectedly disrupted by a telegram from North Africa or an accident that scatters parts of an aircraft and its crew over half of a farm. Others are scattered all over the map, from a fighter base in England to a transport field in Nigeria. “The Four Freedoms” takes place one evening in Cairo, with part of the entourage of generals and staff returning with Roosevelt from the Teheran Conference. At one point, Newhouse’s fictional counterpart, Captain Wyatt, considers the situation of the Air Corps general he works for:
The General will be descending the great staircase soon, Wyatt thought, in full consciousness of his role as the most important man in a room filled with rank. He will slap his current favorite, the new young General Jack Crane, on the shoulder, and he will play wicked uncle to April Starr and Gail Fiske. If he likes the comedian and the juggler, he will ask them if they have any relatives in the Air Forces or what they thought of the food at some A.T.C. base. With the juggler and the comedian, he’ll be Harun-al-Rashid, incognito on the streets of Baghdad, sounding out public opinion. He might confound them by asking how long they thought the war would last and why.
Like most, though by no means all, other soldiers, the General was obsessed by that question.He’ll never again attain a fraction of the power he wields. A coal miner’s son and still drawing only moderate pay, the chief was living as only the wealthiest men in the history of the world had lived. In England he had stopped at the greatest of feudal castles, elsewhere in a series of royal suites, and here among such Byzantine splendors as gold cups on the table and zippers on the mosquito net. He had at his disposal any means of transport or communication known to man. Presents and honors came to him from everywhere. And large formations of bombers went on critical missions, at tree-top level, against targets selected by him.
Newhouse may be the only American writer of fiction to take in the global scope of the war, as well as its industrial capacity and efficiency for destruction. At the same time, however, he never loses sight of the fact that this destruction also operates as a very human scale. In “Irving,” Wyatt recalls an earnest young Jewish kid from New York who worked as a speechwriter in the Pentagon. Irving had worked himself up from being a towel boy in a Turkish bath to second lieutenant’s bars by virtue of a series of cheap mysteries featuring a Boston Brahmin detective named Sedgwick Cabot “equally at home in an opium den off the Embarcadero, at a coming-out party in the Pierre, down in a bathysphere, or aloft at the controls of a PBY.” Eager to experience combat, Irving wheedles his way into being sent to the Philippines to accompany a minor party of reporters. He talks his way onto a B-25 on a bombing mission over Formosa and is promptly killed, along with the aircraft’s whole crew. Wyatt and another speechwriter retire to a bar when the news arrives. “We covered the whole subject of Irving in some detail. All we left out was that he had been the only child of two very old people who lived behind a tailor shop.” As Granville Hicks wrote in his review of Many are Called, “These stories, with their wonderful combination of sensibility and intelligence, belong with the best writing the war has produced.”
Newhouse published less than a dozen stories after Many are Called. His last novel, The Temptation of Roger Heriott (1954), was well-received, but marked his last serious attempt at fiction. In the view of Cheever and others, Newhouse’s primary reason was simply money. He’d sold several stories to Hollywood studios and made good investments with the proceeds. By the late 1940s, Dorothy DeLay had moved from performing to working as a member of the faculty at Julliard and earned a respectable income. He took on the role of supporting spouse, and helped many of his wife’s students–who included such luminaries as Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg–with grant applications and business decisions. Few of them were aware that their teacher’s husband had had a successful career as a writer, and some even assumed he was somehow attached to the faculty. Newhouse stayed friends with Cheever, lunching with him regularly (although Blake Bailey reports in Cheever: A Life that he came to think of Newhouse as a bore). Dorothy kept on teaching at Juilliard up to her death in March 2002; Newhouse followed his wife just eight months later.
Once upon a time, a student in one of George Garrett’s writing classes at the University of Virginia turned in a story about a girl in a black raincoat that was about a real girl in a black raincoat in the class. “It’s a good short story,” Garrett writes in the introduction to The Girl in the Black Raincoat, “but a lot of the class reacted unfavorably. It didn’t seem right to them to make fiction out of something so close and near.” In Garrett’s view, such a choice was neither right nor wrong but exemplary of the kind of choices creative artists always have to make.
So he set the whole class the assignment of writing a story or poem about girls in black raincoats. Soon after that, talk of the assignment went around the English department and spread out to a variety of Garrett’s friends and former students, and he started to get other stories about girls in black raincoats. It was kind of a game, “innocent and scoreless as Frisbee.” The rules were simple: there just had to be a girl in a black raincoat in the story or poem. Eventually, he had so much material that he decided to collect them into this anthology. “What little editing there was to do was in choices,” he writes in the introduction, “for there was far too much in the end to be in one book.” As for sequencing, Garrett took the arbitrary option of placing the stories in reverse alphabetical order by the author’s last name.
In this case, the arbitrariness of the whole exercise also proves serendipitous. As in many short story collections, a really good story may be followed by a forgettable one, but quality spikes up more often than down and there are no extended dull patches in the whole book. Also, Garrett’s contributors are a mix of recognized, unrecognized, and later-to-be-recognized names. Later Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mary Lee Settle contributed a sketch, “Paragraph,” only lightly adapted from her memoir, All the Brave Promises (1966). The journalist and historian William Manchester contributed a rare piece of fiction, “Out in the Crazy, All Alone,” a monologue by a sad, lonely, and slightly drunk young wife contemplating adultery. Novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote contributed what is basically an old dirty joke in a flimsy wrapper of fiction. Leslie Fiedler wrote Garrett saying he was too busy to contribute a story and then proceeded to write the first of the “Four Academic Parables” included here. William Jay Smith, later a Poet Laureate, offerded two poems and his soon-to-be ex-wife, the poet Barbara Howes, contributed “Roselma,” a far better fable than any of Fiedler’s:
Her name was Roselma Pantry, from Tiffin, Ohio, a slender girl of medium height, presumably pretty, but as she was never without her long black mackintosh, topped by a sort of snood or hood, one could not be sure. The textile industry might have despaired had they known of her, for she never sported a tweed or jaeger coat, or even silk or gabardine; she out-minked, or out-foxed, no one; winter and summer, night and day, she trotted up and down those gravel paths in the same black fabric–composed more likely in a test tube than on a loom. Nights, it gave off a faint phosphorescent sheen; once at a college dance she floated by in the arms of the French professor, but still in her black apparel, now unbelted, which under the bright chaperoning lights was near diaphanous.
UVA faculty and former students understandably predominate, including Annie Dillard (a poem, “The Affluent Beatnik”) and her first husband, R. H. W. Dillard (a story, “The Little Man with the Long Red Hair”), and later Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Henry S. Taylor (one of the best stories of the bunch, “And Bid a Fond Farewell to Tennessee”), as well as lesser-known alumni such as John Rodenbeck, later a translator and expert on Egyptian literature (a wonderful story of unsuccessful college romance, “Keep Your Eye on the Feet”).
“The raincoat girl in all her guises and disguises” is, as Garrett writes, “erratic, inconsistent, contradictory, sad, whimsical, mostly irrational and often marvelous. And so is The Girl in the Black Raincoat. I’ll take this arbitary anthology over any deliberate one any day of the week.
The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966
The only child of two artists, Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, granddaughter of the Rev. Edward Everett Hale, and great grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hale’s Boston Brahmin stock was of blue-plate quality. But she also came to maturity during the Roaring Twenties and soon after finishing school, she moved to New York City, where she quickly got a job working for Vogue magazine and, not long after that, snagged herself a handsome and well-to-do husband named Taylor Scott Hardin. She played the part of a Smart Set-er to the full, even parading down Fifth Avenue smoking a “torch of freedom” for PR pioneer Edward Bernays.
Hale went through husbands like shoes until she found the right fit with University of Virginia English professor Fredson Bowers and stayed with him for over 45 years, until her death in 1988. Hale settled easily into the life of a faculty wife in Charlottesville, and a fair number of her later short stories are set in and around the town.
If there is any unifying theme to her third collection of short stories, The Empress’s Ring (1955), it’s memory. But Hale has spent too much time in Manhattan to allow much room for the sentimental in her writing. In the story “The Place and the Time,” for example, the narrator decides to pull off the main highway while driving from Washington to Charlottesville and drive around Starkeyville, a quiet little Virginia town where his first wife had lived.
Parking across from the home of his former mother-in-law, he muses about walking up and knocking, unannounced, on the front door. He imagines several possible receptions, starting with a warm and gracious Southern welcome: “I’d say, ‘Hullo, Miss Grace. Do you remember me?’ And she’d say, ‘I reckon I remember my own son-in-law.’ I’d mention Elizabeth and she’d simply put her hand on mine.” But as he thinks a bit more, the cold truth cuts through his nostalgia:
What else could she say? Could she say, “You killed my daughter, with your neglect and your scoffin’, and your stayin’ out all night when the baby was comin’. That poor little baby, that never saw the light of day.” Could she say, “My daughter loved you, Mr. Peters, she was a lovely girl, a simple, singlehearted girl, and she gave you all her heart. And you repaid her with jeerin’, and belittlin’, and all your grand intellectual friends that she wasn’t good enough for.”
It had been a bad match from the start, and that fact is still too apparent to let him think otherwise. Guiltily, he heads back to the highway. “What the hell do I want, anyway, he asked himself. Do I imagine I want to live in Starkeyville?”
Many of the stories in The Empress’s Ring deal with adults coming into connection with memories of their childhood. Hale would go on to write two collections of her own memories of childhood–A New England Girlhood (1958) and The Life in the Studio (1969)–and it’s hard, despite the disclaimer at the start, not to believe that there is a strong autobiographical element running through this book as well.
In “Charlotte Russe,” for example, the fancy dessert–too sophisticated to serve to children–symbolizes the brilliant, unreachable world of adults that so tantalized the narrator. Any child who’s had to lie in bed and listen to a dinner party going on downstairs can relate to Hale’s recollection:
When I was in bed, I would lie still with the window open to the dark, snowy winter night, and let my feelings soar. I could faintly hear the hum of conversation in the dining room underneath me; when the door between the dining room and the kitchen was opened, a burst of laughter would float up the back stairs. The people at the dinner party were Olympian, seated around a Parnassan table loaded with the fare of gods. I could hear the footsteps of the maids, hurrying over the wooden floor of the kitchen to wait upon them. They drank from crystal goblets, their napkins were vast, satiny; they jokes were, surely, magnificent and immortal.
The connection of memories runs in both directions–putting the adult back in the child’s world and enabling the child’s perspective to illuminate the adult’s current experience, as in the case of “The Year I Had Colds”:
As I lie here, trying to get over this idiotic cold before the Hanson’s party, my mind becomes restless and inattentive if I try to read; I set up a game of patience on a tray and even then it is as though my mind’s eye were focussed on some other scene; until sometimes I give up altogether trying to distract myself and simply lie here, resting, and letting my thoughts wander about as they will in my childhood, in the time when I was kept out of school so much by colds.
The empress’s ring of the title story–a tiny gold ring given to the narrator as a girl that she was told had belonged to the Empress of Austria–represents just the kind of object that can create such a connection: “I worry about it still, even today, thirty odd years later. I close my eyes to go to sleep at night, sometimes, and I am back at the old, disintegrated sand pile where I lost it, digging in the dirt-mixed sand with my fingernails to find my little ring.” Her mother’s scoldings over the ring’s loss are echoed in her self-admonishments as an adult for various shortcomings–not having enough matching drinking glasses, not being able to sew clothes that quite fit. But there is also still the possibility that one day another little girl will find it–a bare bit of hope to offset the sense of loss and inadequacy.
In all, The Empress’s Ring is an elegant, cool, and moving set of reflections on life, memory, connections, and disconnections that rings clear and true even over a distance of sixty years.
The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale New York City: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1955
When James Stern died in 1993 at the age of 88, most of his obituaries acknowledged him as a writer but noted that he was better known as a friend to the famous. An early acquaintance of W. H. Auden, he went on to break bread and knock back whiskies with a fair share of the good writers of the Anglo-American world of the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm Cowley once remarked to Stern, “My God, you’ve known everybody, his wife, his boyfriend, and his natural issue!”
Those letters were somewhat legendary. He wrote as many as eight a day, in fine, precise handwriting. His correspondents included Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, David Garnett, Brian Howard, Arthur Miller, Lewis Mumford, Sonia Orwell, William Plomer, Katherine Anne Porter, V. S. Pritchett, and Patrick White. His one and only biographer, Miles Huddleston, was able to draw heavily upon them in his 2002 book, James Stern: A Life in Letters.
And he was a very well-traveled man. Born in County Meath, Ireland, to a Anglo-Irish banking family with an estate, servants, horses, and annual fox hunting parties, Stern attended Eton and Oxford, tried his hand at farming in Rhodesia, worked in the family bank in London and Frankfurt, then quit and went to Paris to try his hand at writing. “That I ever published a page of prose,” he once wrote, “was due primarily to the dread prospect of spending the rest of my days in a bank.” His first book, The Heartless Land, was touted by Auden and Christopher Isherwood as one of the great works of fiction of the Thirties.
In Paris, he met and married the German physical therapist and writer, Tania Kurella, and they moved to New York City just before the start of World War Two. Stern worked as a journalist in New York, and in late 1944, he was approached with an offer to join the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Bombing Survey, which studied the effects of Allied bombing on Germany. This experience led him to write his only book to be republished, The Hidden Damage (1947). Although some critics felt the book demonstrated remarkable sympathy for the plight of the Germans but was, overall, shapeless and unclear in its ultimate message.
This capacity for empathy is evident throughout The Stories of James Stern. With settings ranging from the Rhodesian bush to Welsh mines, Irish estates, Manhattan apartments, and a graveyard in Germany, these stories demonstrate a confident grasp of setting and a fine ear for the words of his characters.
“You bin down t’pit?”
“Which one’s that’ bin down?”
“Five! he shouts. “Why, tha’s seen best conditions in t’colliery. Who sent thee down, lad?”
“Ah!,” and his eyes narrow and he clenches his fists. “Down ‘ere, lad,” he suddenly bursts out, “in Pit One–four hundred yards under where ah’m standin’, is men an’ boys workin’ on theer stomachs, on theer backs, in two-an’-‘alf-foot seams. They can’t kneel, lad–t’ain’t ‘igh ‘nough. Seven-an-‘alf-hour shifts–roof may fall in an’ kill ’em tomorrow–fifty shillin’s a wik w’en lucky….”
This comes from “A Stranger Among Miners,” which Stern notes is actually a piece of non-fiction drawn from his visit to Welsh and English coal mining communities in the early 1930s. Also non-fiction are the last two pieces in the book, which are taken from The Hidden Damage. In “A Peaceful Place,” Stern recalls a graveyard he would often visit while stationed near Kempten in Bavaria:
Reading the fringe of the cemetery, I stood still and found myself admiring the good sense and taste of the man who had chosen such a spot to bury the dead. In a large, protected circle cut out of the pines, hundreds upon hundreds of crosses–all identical except for an occasional, surprising Star of David–gleamed white against a background of beautifully mown, very green grass. It was the first clean, orderly, peaceful place I had encountered in bomb-battered Bavaria. I stood for several minutes in the intense evening silence and though: If I should die tomorrow, I suppose this is where my bones, if not my dog-tags, would lie for ever….
Although the remainder of the pieces in the book are fiction, it’s clearly fiction that never stretches too far from Stern’s own experiences. In “The Broken Leg,” for example, he seems to be working through long-standing conflicts with his parents, who were avid fox-hunters and, apparently, quite intolerant of anyone who wasn’t–especially their son. Max, the younger son riding off with great trepidation to his first hunt, soon embarrasses himself and his parents by falling clumsily from his horse:
He felt that nothing he did in the future could ever atone for the humiliating performance his mother, father, and brother had just witnessed. He knew, moreover, that he had committed a great sin, two sins: he had shown fear while on a horse, and he had ‘cried before he was hurt.’ In the great hollow abyss of misery that only a child can know, he felt utterly, terribly alone; the whole of his tiny world was against him; there was none to whom he could turn; he was doomed.
It’s no wonder that one of his later friends, the novelist David Hughes, described Stern’s stories as “reports on his traumas lightly disguised as fiction.”
Yet Stern’s thin skin also made him extraordinarily sensitive to the hurts of others. In “The Woman Who Was Loved,” an ever-so-sophisticated socialite, struggles when she has to perform in the one role in which she can gain no notice in the columns: “The periods between governesses–the family averaged two a year–were not easy days for Mrs. Turnbull, for then she had to take charge of her children, a task for which she knew herself to be unfit and which embarrassed both her and them.” Stern himself provided perhaps the most accurate assessment of his work in an obituary he drafted in the early 1960s: “He is to be judged by the highest standards; but his art remains a probing of wounds and somehow, lacking as it is in power of invention and ultimate detachment, fails to achieve its own release from pain.”
Whether it was the growing rawness of his nerves after too many years of laying them bare to the sufferings of the people and characters he observed or struggles with drink or simply a decision to pursue translation (from German, of works by Mann, Kafka, and others) instead, Stern decided to give up writing for publication about the time he penned his own obituary. One assumes it was a decision he was content with. Stern’s literary executor, John Byrne, said that he “was not reticent about his friendships with writers better known that himself. In a way it was a compensation for not writing other things.” As Alan Ross wrote in Stern’s obituary in The Independent, “… if the gift for friendship is one of the most precious gifts of all, then Jimmy Stern was more blessed than as if he had written 15 books instead of five.”
The next set of memories I bear of the Copley-Plaza are very different from these in mood. I must have been fourteen. I had been going to Miss Winsor’s School, out in Longwood, and I found it hard to make friends; as far as I could figure at that age, my total inability to play basketball or field hockey was the cause of my unpopularity. Some sort of instinct, right or wrong, caused me to begin stopping in at the Copley-Plaza on my way home from school, in search of a kind of comfort, in search of a kind of distraction.
For here I would sit, in the main lobby, opposite to the huge marble desk, dressed in my thick, untidy school clothes, my galoshes, with my plaid schoolbag huddled into the thronelike chair with me, and watch what seemed to me the worldly and wealthy conducting their fascinating lives at the Copley-Plaza. In from the Dartmouth Street entrance would hurry a bellboy, or two bellboys, laden down with expensive luggage, followed by a blond woman in a fur coat, or a close-shaven man in a check waistcoat, or a dark, romantic-looking lady all in black and attended by what seemed to be a governess with two or three rich, well-dressed children–important children, children with lives.
Occasionally I would get up and go down the corridor to the ladies’ room, not so much because I needed to as that there I found myself not two feet away from beautiful, expensively dressed women who talked to each other busily about their approaching engagements. I would wash my hands, taking a long time about it, and listen to some lovely girl saying, “We’re going to Paris Friday, on the Ile….” Then I would go back to my throne in the lobby to watch some more people make their entrances. All the time, the stringed orchestra would be playing waltzes, behind in the palm court–fast and sweet and queerly nostalgic. It was almost as if this were the only life I had.
From The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955
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.
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.”
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
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