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I continue to read quite a lot of short stories, and this is another fairly large collection that I dipped in and out of over the course of about three weeks. I recently bought this pretty new VMC anniversary edition of Collected Grace Paley stories, only to get home and realise I already had the book. The other edition was such a physically different book that it hadn’t rung a bell with me at all. It’s not the first time I have bought a book I already have, the perils of a large tbr!

This collection brings together the stories of three previously published collections into one volume: – The Little Disturbances of Man (1959)
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985).

Grace Paley’s stories are of the world she knew well, the noisy vibrant neighbourhoods of New York city. She writes in a style which can take some getting used to, a sort of stream of consciousness style – lots of dialogue and no speech marks. Often in the vernacular of her city, the voices of her characters are loud, insistent, and hard to ignore. Paley has an ear for voices – and she recreates them with great authenticity and affection.

The collection opens with Goodbye and Good Luck and seems to be a letter written from a woman to a much younger female relative. Rose explains her long-term relationship with a Russian actor who she met while working in a New York theatre. She spends her life loving this man she can’t have – turning down other marriage proposals, waiting. One day he does return, years have passed, times have changed. As Rose, who is now firmly in middle age, ends her letter she is about the embark on a new life with the love of her life.

One character we meet in many stories is Faith Darwin – a woman at the heart of the New York Jewish community. She’s a typical Paley heroine. In the earlier stories Faith is a young mother, her husband is absent, and she is rooted in her urban community. In Faith in a Tree we find Faith suspended above the children’s playground in a Sycamore tree contemplating the children of her neighbours as well as her own. In Conversation with my Father – Faith has become a writer, and her father tells her he would like her to write a simple story just once more, the kind of story Maupassant or Checkov might write. In Dreamer in a Dead Language Faith visits her ageing parents in a Jewish retirement home. Here, Faith is drawn into the lives of the other residents, knitting is undertaken, ailments discussed, advice given.

“The boys are down playing Ping-Pong with Mrs Reis. She kindly invited them. Faith, what is it? You look black, her mother said.
Breathless, Mr Darwin gasped, Crazy, crazy like Sylvia, your crazy sister.
Oh her. Mrs Darwin laughed, but took Faith’s hand and pressed it to her cheek. What’s the trouble, Faith? Oh yes, you are something like Sylvie. A temper. Oh, she had life to her. My Poor Syl, she had zest. She died in front of the television set. She didn’t miss a trick.
Oh, Ma, who cares what happened to Sylvie?”
(Dreamer in a Dead Language)

Through these and other stories we see Faith grow, meet her friends and family watch her raise her children. There is often little plot in these stories, but Paley recreates an entire world. There’s a wonderful spirit in Faith, she is ever an optimist, loves her children and her community – and is constantly evolving.

In other stories Paley writes of politics, and we hear voices raised in protest. There are absent fathers, lovers and friends. We meet the mothers of the neighbourhood playgrounds, she introduces them in typical Paley fashion.

“When I went to the Playground in the afternoon I met eleven unwed mothers on relief. Only four of them were whores, the rest of them were unwed on principle or because some creep had ditched them.”
(Northeast Playground)

grace paley storiesIn one story a woman runs into her former husband and they sneak off together to make love. A boy is killed in a sudden senseless accident while messing around on the trains with his friends, in Samuel. In Friends a group of women friends who first knew one another when their children were young visit a dying friend, and travel home together afterwards. An elderly couple raise the child of their mentally ill daughter, while an elderly pharmacist is forced to face up to his own past racism in Zagrowsky Tells – which was one of my favourite stories. The voices are strong, their stories those of any city – and yet also, they seem particularly the stories of New York.

In these stories Grace Paley is funny, wise and frequently angry – she understands life in all its difficulties and her characters are very real. There is a rhythm and inventiveness in Paley’s use of language. There is a sort of aural quality to Paley’s stories, from the lilt of the Yiddish spoken by many characters, to the rattle of subways trains, the voices of children playing in city playgrounds – the laughter and protest of people living in close proximity.

 

 

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thecatscradle book

What a fabulous quirky constantly inventive writer Sylvia Townsend Warner was! I am already a massive fan of her writing, and The Cat’s Cradle Book collection is really something quite different.

The premise essentially is to tell us the stories, that have been passed down from cats to their kittens for generations. Fairy-tales from cats, giving us, an unusual cat’s eye view of the world. It isn’t a perspective we are used to – and the cynical reader may need to suspend belief and just enjoy the ride. These stories are joyfully different, tapping into our long-held love of traditional stories.

“For ages the Cat language has been catholic, explicit, unvarying. I understand it, you understand it, every child picks up an inkling of it. When cats creep into children’s cradles and old women say that they are sucking the child’s breath, what do you suppose they are doing? Keeping them quiet with a story – and better than their mothers can!”

It is a shame that this collection remains out of print, although this pretty 1960s edition of a collection first published in 1940 seems widely available from the usual places, a perfect gift for a fairy-tale loving cat person. A little warning though cat lovers, a few of the cats in this book don’t survive – but you would probably expect that.

The collection begins with an introduction from the editor of these special tales. This forty-four page ‘introduction’ was my favourite part of the whole book, in which STW describes perfectly, a house, its feline inhabitants in fine and glorious prose. The ‘editor’ comes upon a house, nestled deep in the countryside, here she meets a particularly handsome man, living alongside many cats and kittens. The young man is astounded to find the author can understand the language of cat – far better than she can speak it. The cats have plenty to tell her, introducing her to their kittens, they rub against her in welcome. Our narrator stays to tea, and the remarkably handsome young man begins to tell his own story. Having finished Oxford, the young man embarked upon a diplomatic career, while in Turkey he fell hopelessly in love; with a Siamese cat called Haru. Look, these things happen! Haru is technically the property of the naval attaché’s wife, though Haru soon makes her feelings perfectly clear. Haru captivates the young man; William with her stories. The young man is destined for heartbreak, and thereafter dedicates himself to re-telling the traditional stories of cats.

“The following stories are chosen from the collection of traditional narratives current among cats, made by the late Mr William Farthing of Spain Hall, Norfolk. The selection is the editor’s.”

The stories which follow tell a variety of tales, and not all of them are about cats. Like Odin’s Birds in which we have a couple of ravens competing over the eyes of a corpse; the body a man they have just witnessed two women fighting over. In another we find ourselves among the marquisate of The Castle of Carabas who for generations have been born with a cat’s paw shaped birthmark and a natural horror for cats. Virtue and the Tiger tells the story of a hermit a man of great learning and holiness, and his strange meeting with a tiger, a meeting that will have a profound effect on them both. The Fox Pope tells the story of a fox unwillingly named as the next pope – who enlists the help of a stable-boy to free him from the papacy. The Phoenix; tells the story of the legendary bird acquired by Lord Strawberry a big collector of birds, after his death The Strawberry Phoenix fund is launched, and the bird acquired to be shown – at a price – to the marvelling public. In Bread for the Castle, the lives of a baker and his daughter are changed when a great family comes to the neighbourhood and takes up residence in the castle. The man and his daughter bake night and day to fulfil the order from the castle.

“ ‘Surely she has grown smaller,’ thought the baker. ‘Or do my eyes deceive me?’
Looking at her more attentively he saw that his daughter had changed into an owl.
‘But this is frightful,’ thought the baker. ‘My poor girl, with such brilliant prospects, and such a good daughter into the bargain, so handy and willing! What shall I do without her?’
He opened the oven-door and turned the bread. The bread was alright: nothing untoward had happened to the bread.”

The final story in this collection is Bluebeard’s Daughter, Djamileh is the daughter in question. Her father had been adoring and kind, none of her step-mothers lived long enough to cause her any problems. She had however, inherited her father’s colouring which causes the girl to not want to look at herself in the mirror. Her father dies, and Djamileh guardianship is undertaken by her father’s solicitor, she will inherit everything, and grows up to be very wealthy young woman. In time she marries Kayel, and the couple return to Shady Transports – where as a child Djamileh had lived with her father. The palace still has secrets to reveal.

The Cat’s Cradle Book is a lovely collection, at turns dark and humorous Sylvia Townsend Warner understands perfectly the tradition of old tales passed on, and these stories are wonderfully inventive.

sylvia-sitting-in-garden

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men without women

Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Chosen by my very small book Men without women is a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami. An author I would probably never have read without my book group – and I suspect will never read again. He gave us (my book group) lots to discuss – Overall, I didn’t like this book very much, and that worried me initially, I wondered if I had prejudiced myself against the book before I read it. I don’t read many modern male writers – you may have noticed – and Murakami seemed to sit somewhere outside my comfort zone. Still, it was a book group read, not especially long, I was on holiday from work so able to grimly plough through it a bit more than a day, (an attitude I accept may not have helped). I didn’t find the book unremittingly without merit – there were several things I liked – though out of the seven stories in the collection, probably only two I really engaged with; these were Kino and An Independent Organ.

The premise of the book was the first thing I liked, stories of loneliness, of men struggling in a world, forced to live their lives for whatever reason without women. It was this premise I think which sold it to my small feminist book group – only the second book written by a man we’ve read. It was those questions of how men and women live with or without one another and how men see women that interested us all. Occasionally I came across passages that made me stop and reread – they were so beautifully written – yet most of the time I found Murakmai’s writing to be nothing special. There was a distance in his writing style that I didn’t like – I am usually fine with a writer who stands back from their characters. The sense of loneliness in some of these stories is well done, the men finding it hard to engage with the world or the people around them. The relationships are stunted and awkward even between male friends the relationships are flawed – presumably because they are men without women.

In these stories we have as the title and the premise suggest men living without women. Sometimes it is a strange, slightly unexplained world – where different rules apply. In the opening story ‘Drive My Car’ A man banned from driving hires a woman chauffeur and proceeds to tell her about his odd friendship with the man who was his late wife’s lover. In ‘Yesterday’ we meet a young man who loans his girlfriend to a friend. In ‘An Independent Organ’ A plastic surgeon who finally and fatally falls in love having lived his life enjoying casual and meaningless relationships with women. In this story we learn that women have an independent organ which allows them to lie with ease hmmm!!

“Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie. This was Dr. Tokai’s personal opinion. It depends on the person, he said about the kind of lies they tell, what situation they tell them in, and how the lies are told. But at a certain point in their lives, all women tell lies, and they lie about important things. They lie about unimportant things, too, but they also don’t hesitate to lie about the most important things. And when they do, most women’s expressions and voices don’t change at all, since it’s not them lying, but this independent organ they’re equipped with that’s acting on its own. That’s why – except for a few special cases – they can still have a clear conscience and never lose sleep over anything they say.”
(An Independent Organ)

A housekeeper/mistress nicknamed ‘Scheherazade’ in the story of the same name tells stories of her teenage house breaking in pursuit of a boy who didn’t notice her. In ‘Kino’, a man gives up his job when his marriage breaks down and buys a bar with its enigmatic resident cat, and meets a woman bearing the scars of terrible abuse. In ‘Samsa in Love’ – Murakami turns Kafka’s Metamorphosis on its head – Samsa  wakes in confusion to find himself a man. The title story ‘Men without Women’ is the final one in the collection. It seems to be less of a story and more of a series of thoughts about the overarching theme of the book.

“A deep gulf separates the second and the first loneliest on earth. Most likely. Deep, and wide, too. The bottom is heaped high with the corpses of birds who have tried, and failed, to traverse it. Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you’re already there. But by then there’s no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called “Men Without Women.” Always a relentlessly frigid plural.”
(Men without Women)

As a book group we were interested particularly in the representation of women and the way women were portrayed by the author or viewed by his characters. It was here I think that my problems started. Now in all these stories the perspective is that of a man or men, and so only through them do we see women. We have women who cheat on the men in their lives, women judged in terms of their attractiveness – others who seem to hold power over a man. In each case these women seem horribly stereotypical and very two dimensional. Is this because Murakami is trying to show us how it is women are perceived by men? Is he making an important point? – I preferred to think so – or does this come from the author himself?

I was nervous about reviewing this book because Murakami is one of those writers with a legion of fans, he seems to enjoy a cult like status and I wondered – does everyone love him but me? Well no, in my book group one other member hated it so much she could see nothing positive at all, a couple of others while not hating it seemed under whelmed. I have seen the g word applied fairly liberally to his work, and I just wasn’t getting it. True, we can’t all like the same thing – still, as someone who appreciates good literary writing, I felt a bit sad that I didn’t get it.

murakami

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dancing girls

My second read for Karen and Simon’s 1977 club was Margaret Atwood’s The Dancing Girls, a collection of short stories. It was only after finishing the collection, and quite by chance that I discovered the list of fourteen stories in the book changes very slightly between two editions. In the original 1977 edition the stories; War in the Bathroom and Rape Fantasies are included – which for the 1982 edition are changed for Betty and The Sin Eater. My Virago edition has this later selection of stories – I can’t help but wonder at the change – although I am pleased at the inclusion of Betty as it was one of my favourite stories in this collection.

1977club

I have thoroughly enjoyed short story collections by Margaret Atwood before – many years ago reading Bluebeard’s Egg – very pre-blog and more recently Stone Mattress and Wilderness Tips. Several of these stories really do stand out and are every bit as excellent as I have come to expect – however some of the others didn’t work quite as well for me. Overall, I liked the collection but didn’t love it.

The men and women in these stories are frequently unable to communicate with one another – they are often separate themselves either physically or mentally. These stories explore the complicated relationships between men and women.

In the opening story; The man from Mars an awkward, slightly overweight student finds herself pursued by a foreign student from an unnamed Eastern country. Christine – living in the shadow of her more glamorous mother and sisters, is unused to such attention. So, when a short, bespectacled oriental looking man begins to follow her around after having once stopped her to ask directions she really doesn’t know what to think. The student is horribly persistent, but also rather pathetic. His attentions are perplexing, and irritating, but he doesn’t seem dangerous. Nevertheless, eventually the police are involved. It is a wonderful story to kick off the collection, there is a deliciously wry humour in the description of Christine’s faithful pursuer – and of a strained little tea party, Christine’s clueless mother insists she has for a man who might turn out to be boyfriend material.

“As the weekdays passed and he showed no signs of letting up, she began to jog-trot between classes, finally to run. He was tireless, and had an amazing wind for one who smoked so heavily: he would speed along behind her, keeping the distance between them the same, as though he were a pull-toy attached to her by a string. She was aware of the ridiculous spectacle they must make, galloping across campus, something out of a cartoon short, a lumbering elephant stampeded by a smiling, emaciated mouse, both of them locked in the classic pattern of comic pursuit and flight.”
(The man from Mars)

Betty – one of those two stories added to this collection in place of others – is the second story in the collection. The story narrator looks back to a time when she was growing up – remembering the neighbours Betty and her husband Fred who she met when her family rented a small cottage for the summer between house moves. Betty hadn’t interested her young neighbour when she was a child – instead it was Fred who absorbed all her interest and fantasies.

“It seemed as if we had lived in the cottage for a long time, though it was only one summer. By August I could hardly remember the apartment in Ottawa and the man who used to beat his wife. That had happened in a remote life, and, despite the sunshine, the water and the open space, a happier one. Before our frequent moves and the insecurities of new schools had forced my sister to value me.”
(Betty)

Now, as an adult looking back on that time, she realises she can no longer remember Fred’s face – though she remembers Betty with great clarity. She remembers how Betty changed after Fred betrayed her – how over the years Betty kept in touch, and the family watched as she re-invented herself yet remained much more of a mystery than Fred ever was.

That foreign ‘otherness’ that is explored in the opening story is present again in the title story Dancing Girls. Set in a boarding house, where Ann and her landlady – wonder about the new man – who has what the landlady calls a native costume in which she politely asks him to appear from time to time. We witness the clash of cultures again, although I felt the story petered out a bit at the end.

Other stories which grabbed me were: When it happens; in which we see a woman who remembers well living through the Second World War is preparing for what she thinks is the end of the world – or some kind of cataclysmic event that will bring almost everything to an end. The Resplendent Quetzal is another superb story – in which the broken relationship of a married couple on a bird watching holiday is beautifully explored. In Hair Jewellery we meet a woman who loves someone who never really returns her feelings. She has romanticised their future break up – which when it comes is nothing like her fantasy – eventually she finds she can never quite leave him behind.

I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing – and there is certainly a lot to enjoy in this collection, those stories which I was less keen on stop short of actually being disappointing – they just didn’t grab me.

margaretatwood3

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cof

When I read my first collection of short-stories by Katherine Mansfield I was sure it wouldn’t be long before I read my next. Well that was five years ago!

The Montana Stories was one of those odd gaps I had in my Persephone collection – I had meant to acquire a copy for years. I love collections of short-stories – and I have no idea why I left it so long to get and read this one – it is glorious.

The Montana Stories ticked off 2001 in my A Century of Books – which felt like a bit of a cheat, because all the stories were written in 1921 – but this collection was only put together by Persephone in 2001. In 1921, Katherine Mansfield, very ill with TB went to stay in a chalet in Montana, Switzerland for her health. This period became one of her most creative periods – and the pieces in this collection are presented chronologically – which is often such an interesting way to read a writer’s work. This collection contains short stories and unfinished fragments – and some extracts from her letters in the editorial notes at the back. The unfinished stories can be a little frustrating – though still beautiful to read. Some of these unfinished pieces end less abruptly and could be seen as having an ambiguous ending – other pieces end more suddenly. Many of the stories in this edition had been previously published in The Spectator – and illustrations that accompanied those stories are reproduced here too.

montana switz

With so many very short stories and fragments in this collection I am only to talk about three particular stories in any detail – but I really can’t stress how perfect every word of the whole collection is. What a truly gifted writer Katherine Mansfield was. Some other stories that will stay with me particularly are: Mr and Mrs Dove, Marriage á la Mode and A Cup of Tea, as well as the frustratingly unfinished A Married Man’s story.

In Bliss and other Stories (1920) – the collection opens with Prelude – a story still that is very memorable to me five years later. In that story we meet the Burnell family – perhaps that story is so memorable for me because it was my introduction to Katherine Mansfield. So, imagine my delight to find not one but two more stories in The Montana Stories featuring the Burnell family; At the Bay and The Doll’s House. One of the daughters of the Burnell family is Kezia – and I read something, somewhere online that suggests that Kezia is an autobiographical character, having little patience with conventional society rules. These two stories were perhaps not surprisingly among my favourites in the collection.

“As the morning lengthened whole parties appeared over the sand-hills and came down on the beach to bathe. It was understood that at eleven o’clock the women and children of the summer colony had the sea to themselves. First the women undressed, pulled on their bathing dresses and covered their heads in hideous caps like sponge bags; then the children were unbuttoned. The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells. It was strange that even the sea seemed to sound differently when all those leaping, laughing figures ran into the waves.”
(At the Bay)

montanastoties1

In At the Bay, Stanley Burnell, Kezia’s father goes out for an early morning swim, then returns to the house for breakfast before leaving for work. When he leaves, the women and children – left behind – breathe a sigh of relief. Aunt Beryl talks coolly to a society woman, while Kezia’s mother daydreams the day away, her latest baby at her side – leaving the majority of the household tasks to be supervised by Kezia’s grandmother. It is a beautifully atmospheric story – suffused with a feeling of long, indolent sunny days, bathing, dreaming and talking the day away, until the time comes for the men to return.

In The Doll’s House the Burnell children are given a fabulous Doll’s House that is so large it has to sit outside the house in the garden. The house opens up to reveal tiny, beautifully furnished rooms, Kezia is particularly enchanted by a lamp. The children delight in telling the other children at school all about their doll’s house, Kezia’s older sister reserves the right to do the telling first, she is, after all, the eldest. They are permitted to bring their friends home to see it – a couple at a time, glorying in the envy and delight the other children have for it. However, they are not allowed to bring the Kelveys – who no one else ever associates with the Kelvey siblings either. No one knows who their father is – and their mother is the washerwoman. It is only Kezia who is made uncomfortable by such rules and dares to go against them.

“The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat prised it open with his penknife, and the whole house swung back, and – there you were gasping at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat stand and two umbrellas! That is – isn’t it? – what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker.”
(The Doll’s House)

Another of Katherine Mansfield’s most well-known stories in this collection, is The Garden Party – and this too is utterly masterful. The Sheridan family are preparing for their garden party. Daughter Laura has been put in charge of ensuring the marquee is put in the correct place, while her sister Jose tests the piano. Their mother has ordered masses of lilies and the girls are enchanted by the flowers. As the preparations near completion, the family learn that a working-class neighbour has been killed in an accident, leaving behind a wife and children. Laura thinks the party should be called off out of respect but neither her mother or sister agree. Later she is asked to take a basket of left-overs to the family. The Sheridan sisters also appear briefly in the story Her First Ball.

Persephone short story collections are always a hit with me – I’ve yet to read one that isn’t fabulous. This collection reminds me that I haven’t read nearly enough Katherine Mansfield – and I do have another collection waiting on my kindle.

katherine mansfield

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midsummernight workshouse

I have become an admirer of Diana Athill through reading four of her books of memoir – and I have a couple more tbr. She is a wonderful teller of tales, her memoirs written with great warmth and honesty. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was my first experience of Athill’s fiction.

These twelve stories first appeared in the late 1950s or early 1960s, ten of them published with four others under the title An Unavoidable Delay in 1962. This lovely Persephone collection was published in 2011 – with Athill able to write her own preface – she is one of only a few living authors to be published by Persephone. The endpapers taken from a fabric purchased by Diana Athill for her flat in the 1970s.

In this collection Athill writes about young women experiencing the world of love and sex for the first time. Smart, sexy, knowing stories, touched with gentle humour and some well-developed characterisation.

A young girl is enraptured by her first kiss at a dance, with an unexciting young man in The Real Thing which opens the collection. The girl is touchingly young, finds so many situations to be ‘utterly withering’ and unkindly calls her companion Thomas ‘Toofat’ in her head – his last name is Toogood. He is at least old enough to drive a car. In No Laughing Matter another young girl – a university student – who is absolutely smitten with her boyfriend Stephen – has to decide whether it is time to take their relationship to the next level.

“For twelve weeks these anxieties had buzzed like mosquitoes, teasing at the decision, giving her the circles under her eyes and spoiling her appetite. The more formidable they became, the more certain she was that she would do it in spite of them. The decision was harder than she had expected, involved more than the general principle of the thing which, though frightening, was simple. She was suffering for it, and the more she suffered the greater became her exaltation.”
(No Laughing Matter)

Most of these quiet stories are set in England, and the point of view is mainly, though not exclusively that of women. Two stories take place abroad, one in Italy and one in Greece. Although the themes of many of these stories are very similar – they each standalone perfectly – characters are clearly distinct from one another.

midsummernight2Adultery rears its head in a couple of stories – in the first of them, we meet one woman living in boredom with her husband. Her memory, keeping alive, her brief fling with a slight social acquaintance. In, For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound Kate Beeston is floored by a casual phone call from her former lover she watches her husband in the garden – and recalls the week she spent with David Field when her husband was away. This was one of my favourite stories, for me it had the feel of the kind of story Elizabeth Taylor could have written.

“The name had stabbed her – ‘It’s David Field here’ – so that Kate had reached for something to lean on, but then an odd contentment had come down on her and it had been an effort to understand what he was saying. She had wanted only to listen to the sound of his voice.”
( For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound)

In the title story, a writer tries desperately to find her writing mojo – at a writing retreat. There are a host of quirky characters installed – including a practised seducer – who all delight in poking fun at the house rules, and the odd little messages pinned up on the communal notice board.

One story told from a male point of view is An Afternoon Off. Tweedy middle-aged Roger Paul, who works for a publisher has rarely had a day off, never taken his full holiday entitlement. One afternoon he decides to not go back to the office – he doesn’t phone them to explain either. He goes to the cinema and has tea with a young woman who he tries not to notice is a bit common and tells him about her boyfriend. He finds it is all a little bit disappointing.

In the final story Buried – a middle aged woman finds herself skulking through the farmyard of her brother’s neighbour. It is a couple of years since Mrs Klein last visited her Colonel brother. Their peculiar adventure gives her chance to recall their childhood, how her elder brother had been everything to her before he went away to school – and gradually life disrupted that early closeness. In this way, she comes to a new understanding of her brother, realising how he became the man he is.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is another excellent short story collection from Persephone books. Diana Athill a writer I continue to read with great relish.

DianaAthill

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rhapsody

Dorothy Edwards was a welsh writer – associated with some of the Bloomsbury group – who I suspect is little read now. Her writing is carefully restrained. In Rhapsody we have ten beautiful tales of loneliness and desire, stories with little plot – but so much pared back emotion. Aside from this collection of stories – she published only one novel Winter Sonata a year later (which I may have read many moons ago, but no longer own, sadly). Her life appears to have been quite unhappy, and in 1934 at the age of thirty-one, she threw herself under a train. The note she left behind read:

“I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship, and even love, without gratitude and given nothing in return.”

How truly sad. This sadness certainly seeps into her writing, in a number of ways, particularly in the relationships which so often never find fulfilment.

It is perhaps odd that these stories don’t reflect the world that Dorothy Edwards herself lived in. Here we have the polite, ordered world of the English country house – worlds that are often disrupted by an outsider, a visitor usually. These are characters who unlike Edwards’ family, had no money worries, their money was unearned, and they live deep in the English countryside of Dorothy Edwards imagination. Her narrators are male, which I admit threw me in the first story Rhapsody. I’m so used to women writers of about this period writing from a female perspective that I simply assumed the first-person narrator of the title story was woman, a couple of pages in I became a tad confused and had to do a rapid reassessment.

Music was important to Edwards and in this collection, music, either the playing of it or the appreciation of it is, a recurring theme. In the title story, a young man (as I finally realised) named Elliott, recently returned from abroad, meets a Mr Everett, a music enthusiast who lives in the country outside of London with his invalid wife. Everett invites his new friend to spend part of his holiday with him and his wife. Elliott is a fellow musical enthusiast and occasional singer, as Everett learns soon after meeting him. Everett’s love of music, verges on the obsessional and he engages a governess for his young son whose accomplishments are more musical than academic – Everett is enchanted by her voice. The days become devoted more and more to music, and Everett watches in some discomfort as the two grow closer – while poor Mrs Everett fades daily.

There are great similarities between the story of Rhapsody and many of the other stories, where an outsider, either disrupts or bears witness to the disruption of a marriage. In A Country House, an electrician employed to bring electric light to a large house, is the outsider who disrupts. In A Garland of Earth an old man remembers the son of one of his school friends, who in turn introduces him to his daughter Rahel – a scientist who her father believes will be as great as Curie. Though the point of view of these stories is largely male – the power is held lightly by the women.

In The Conquered another young man; Frederick, goes to stay with an aunt on the Welsh Borders. Here he is thrown into company with his cousins Jessica and Ruth, and through them meets Gwyneth who has been teaching Ruth how to sing. Frederick is enthralled by Gwyneth, though in time he starts to see her differently.

“I remember how one night I went out by myself down in the direction of her house, where my steps always seemed to take me. When I reached the traveller’s-nightshade it was growing dark. For a moment I looked towards her house and a flood of joy came into my soul, and I began to think how strange it was that, although I have met so many interesting people, I should come there simply by chance and meet her. I walked towards the entrance of a little wood, and, full of a profound joy and happiness, I walked in between the trees. I stayed there for a long time imagining her coming gaily into the wood where the moonlight shone through the branches.”
(The Conquered)

Treachery in the Forest was one of my favourite stories. Mr Wendover spends his holidays in a cottage in a forest. Here he meets Mr and Mrs Harding, a couple who spend their time painting. The Hardings invite Mr Wendover to their house to play Bach for them, and so he is drawn into their lives, enjoying their company, looking forward to when he will see them again, delighting in the gift of hens’ eggs for them.

“Very carefully, two in one hand and one in the other. People who passed him, especially people in charabancs, laughed at him, though there was really nothing to laugh about.”
(Treachery in the Forest)

Another very memorable story is Summertime, in which Joseph Laurel goes to stay at a country house. Here he becomes smitten by a red-haired school girl, more than twenty years his junior. Joseph’s old friend Beatrice is of the party too, and Joseph can’t understand her sly little smiles, the amusement which, he suspects must be directed his way. Only when forced to recognise the girl’s youth, as he watches her walk away with a boy her own age, does he come to suspect the reason for Beatrice’s amused contempt.

These stories are quiet, beautifully controlled pieces. They will perhaps not suit everyone – especially those who like an obvious plot – but they are beautiful little masterpieces well worth seeking out.

dorothyedwards1

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