THE OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH SHORT STORIES. A. S. Byatt, editor. 439pp. Oxford University Press. Pounds 19.99. - 0 19 21 4238 0.
The short story in English is a well-mapped terrain; the English short story less so. There are anthologies of Victorian short stories, Edwardian short stories, modern short stories, love stories, war stories, ghost stories, adventure stories, detective stories, school stories, women's stories, gay and lesbian stories - but as a collective adjective, the English have not done terribly well out of the anthologizing process. This is partly because the English language has long flourished with enviable vigour outside England itself, yielding short- story writers whose names have become so intimately linked with the genre that an anthology leaving them out on grounds of nationality alone runs the risk of seeming very mean. For a collection of English stories necessarily excludes Muriel Spark, Robert Louis Stevenson, Samuel Beckett, Frank O'Connor, Oscar Wilde, Patrick White, Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, O. Henry, Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Mark Twain and Edith Wharton, among others. And what does one do with naturalized or expatriate English writers who are not English by birth, like Doris Lessing, Joseph Conrad, Olive Schreiner, Kazuo Ishiguro and Henry James? Pity the poor editor, more or less obliged to welcome Somerset Maugham and his sunset gin-and-tonics with open arms, while turning away James Joyce. If anyone is able to rise to the occasion with audacious aplomb, however, it is Antonia Byatt. As it happens, she not only manages to weed out Maugham with admirable tact ("a little too mechanical"), but gives the chop to writers whom one might confidently have expected to encounter, preferring those who have been less frequently anthologized. Be warned that this is an anthology with Ronald Firbank but no E. M. Forster, J. G. Ballard but no Arnold Bennett, Ian McEwan but no George Eliot. All in all, there are thirty-seven stories in the book, which should still fit comfortably inside a briefcase.
That is the beauty of the short story: it is short. Its shortness is also its greatest problem, however. It is the little-ease of literary forms. Where the novel can explain, the short story can only imply; there is no space to dissect motivation, to expand character, or to elaborate plot beyond a few scenes. Even more crampingly, because of the brevity of the reading experience (the longest story included here is about 10,000 words long, the shortest just under 500), there is no room for the superfluous; every detail tells. A great short story should have cohesion without predictability, unity without blandness, but something else too - what Elizabeth Bowen called necessariness, which is simply another word for immediacy: the ability to compel us, to make us forget that we are witnessing a sleight-of-hand. How good, then, are the English at short stories? And in what way, if any, are they different on paper from, say, the Russians or the Germans?
It has to be said at the outset that the chief pleasure of this anthology, in spite of some of its more surprising omissions, is its sheer readability. Byatt wisely resists the temptation to range further back beyond the nineteenth century and include folk-tales, fabliaux or Canterbury Tales, which are all technically - but only technically, in the modern sense - short stories.
The format of the short story as we know it - a piece of fiction that can be read in one sitting - only properly emerged in the nineteenth century, when cheaper paper prices and the mechanization of the printing industry led to a boom in popular, affordable periodicals.
By contrast, the eight-eenth-century sketch or essay, printed at greater cost and for a comparatively limited audience, is strikingly the product of a more leisurely age, its meditative longueurs appealing to relaxed pre-industrial sensibilities. It is the late Victorian magazine story, rapid in pace, compactly plotted and typically tweaked to twist in the tail, that anticipates the page-turner of the twentieth century; Rudyard Kipling's bestselling Indian short stories, for instance, written in the late 1880s for a Lahore weekly, were actually called "turnovers", as they were specifically tailored to fill no more than a narrow column on the first page and a quarter column on the second. The modern reader does not want to encounter a piece of collective wisdom, an exemplum or an excerpt from a larger work, however crucial these may have been to the development of the genre. What the modern reader in search of a good story expects is a self-sufficient prose text, the work of an individual imagination, Frank O'Connor's "lonely voice". Byatt strikes the right note immediately by beginning with William Gilbert's wildly idiosyncratic piece about a pharisaical London sacristan who is haunted by a daemonic pig. Together they set off to try the hermit's life, with no success, in a shed on Kennington Common. The particularity of the pig - large and fat, wearing a bell fastened around its neck with a leather strap - is one of the main delights of the story; the other is the suavity of its minder, an urbane, essentially English imp sent to debate the finer detail of the anchorite's life with the sacristan. Although the ending is abrupt, Gilbert demonstrates an irreverent familiarity with the medieval morality tale that is marvellously insouciant. His is the first of several pieces in this collection exploring the fantastical or supernatural: "The Haunted House" by Charles Dickens, "Two Doctors" by M. R. James, "A White Night" by Charlotte Mew, "The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown" by G. K. Chesterton, "A Tragedy in Green" by Ronald Firbank, "The Troll" by T. H. White and "Solid Geometry" by Ian McEwan; all represent this time-honoured strain in the English short story, which Continental writers have never really managed to match.
Closest in spirit to Gilbert's story is White's hyperreal account of a troll - "eminently solid, about eight feet high, and dressed in brightly ornamented skins" - boarding at a Lapland hotel, that combines the mundane with the horrific to exactly the degree necessary to impart dramatic conviction to the narrative. Mew's tale about English visitors to a remote Andalusian convent who witness a ritual live burial applies the principle of verisimilitude with high seriousness, while Firbank's fantasy about omnipotence, in which bored Lady Georgia Blueharnis learns how to rid herself of her enemies when she discovers a spell for "the Overthrowing and Upsetting of Public Buildings, and the Houses of Private Individuals", does so mischievously. In each case, the success of the story depends on its sharp visual realization, which is achieved through a judicious blend of suggestion and circumstantial detail. The most perfect example of all, however, is McEwan's Moebius strip of a tale, "Solid Geometry", a hypnotic splicing of the stock elements of the Victorian tale of terror - the undeciphered diary, the lost formula, the unexplained disappearance - with a very modern take on a failing marriage. The narrator, a biographer immersed in transcribing his great-grandfather's mathematical and sociological musings, is irritated by his wife, Maisie, a sucker for "junk-shop mysticism, joss-stick therapy, magazine astrology . . . other people's mystic banalities". As he slavishly peruses his Victorian ancestor's earnest notes on Darwin, free love, the ground plans of religious buildings and the sanitary threat posed to London's streets by the alarming growth of the horse population, she agonizes about Jung, tarot readings, therapy sessions and getting her head straight - plus ca change. All the while the denouement of this astute social satire is being prepared by means of a brilliant mathematical conceit which seems entirely plausible, even while we know that it cannot possibly balance out in the real world. As the arguments between husband and wife comically intercut excerpts from the diaries, the narrator comes ever closer to solving the mystery of the mysterious vanishing of his great-grandfather's friend, M, and in so doing discovers how to rid himself of Maisie without trace.
"Solid Geometry" owes much to the great Edwardian connoisseur of the supernatural, M. R. James, in superb form here in one of his chilling pastiches, "Two Doctors", a horror story written as the transcription of an eighteenth-century court case. James's drily factual account of the lingering sickness and death of Dr Quinn advances by fits and starts, terrifyingly suspended on the tenterhooks of its silences.
Sadly, once we have read James, it is obvious that Dickens's ghost story should not have been included, and that Chesterton's "adventure" tale shouldn't have been either, for the simple reason that neither author ever came to grips with the principle of omission. Dickens's freshness as a prose stylist lies in his unashamed descriptive digressions, his disregard for tightness of form and his sheer pleasure in the idiosyncrasies, physical and psychological, of human beings. He works by a process of verbal accretion, which makes him a great novelist, building layer on layer until the finished product resembles an eight-course dinner, but also unfits him for the nouvelle cuisine that is the short story. "The Haunted House", as it turns out, was not even written by Dickens as a substantive tale but as the framing introduction to a longer sequence, so that we are presented with what amounts to a prologue and the first story from the original collection. Nouvelle cuisine? This is an appetiser. Chesterton, on the other hand, with his constant self-watchfulness, his fear of emotional excess and his need for a rational analysis at all costs, is a great biographer (as it happens, principally of Dickens) but only a workmanlike writer of fiction. His story about Major Brown's accidental entanglement with the Adventure and Romance Agency, resulting in a series of bizarre encounters designed to give him back "his childhood, that godlike time when we can act stories, be our own heroes, and at the same instant dance and dream", falls flat because it gives us theory instead of adventure or romance: "Facts point in all directions", reflects a young friend of the Major's, speaking in cut-and-paste Chestertonian symbols: "like the thousand twigs on a tree. It's only the life of the tree that has unity and goes up - only the green blood that springs, like a fountain, at the stars." This idea has been fully fleshed out before by Goethe in the first part of his Faust. Which would you rather read? One isn't surprised to discover that Major Brown's oddly truncated adventure, like Dickens's ghost story, is actually the framing episode to a series of tales, The Club of Queer Trades.
But then Byatt offers us Thomas Hardy, for whose sake one would gladly go five rounds with Chesterton, or even Maugham for that matter. "A Mere Interlude" is one of Hardy's ironic titles; the interlude referred to is the impromptu marriage of a young woman, Baptista Trewthen, to her former sweetheart the day before she is due to make a marriage of convenience to a much older man. Her young husband drowns a few hours after the ceremony, leaving her, stunned and miserable, to go through with the wedding planned for her by her family. Married for the second time, she discovers that her elderly husband has four daughters by a former, secret marriage just like her own. Yet, instead of putting the final seal on Baptista's disillusionment, this revelation proves to be the turning point in her life: "She grew to like the girls of unpromising exterior, and from liking she got to love them; till they formed an unexpected point of junction between her own and her husband's interests, generating a sterling friendship at least, between a pair in whose existence there had threatened to be neither friendship nor love." One overlooks Hardy's tendency to overload his short stories with the circumlocutious expressions which he thought high literature required - just as one overlooks it in his novels - because it is undercut by his dispassionate moral vision, his sympathy with our powerlessness, and his true imaginative identification with what Arnold Bennett called "the magnificent commonplace world", a world constantly requiring the difficult adjustment to imperfect circumstances. In its ballad-like detachment, its finely sustained balance between comedy and tragedy, "A Mere Interlude" is as satisyingly generous, in miniature, as Hardy's other great study of a woman learning to compromise between the ideal and the real, Far From the Madding Crowd. Hardy's sense of irony, his appreciation of the resistance offered by real life to the symmetry that art wants to impose, is modern rather than specifically English; Virginia Woolf, for instance, acquired her fascination with the peripheral, the everyday, partly from the New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, who learnt it in turn from Chekhov. All three, recognizing that lived experience is unpredictable, avoid the pat ending.
No English writer now working is better at narrative asymmetry, however, than the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, one of whose rare published short stories, "At Hiruharama", was no doubt chosen by Byatt because it displays Fitzgerald's seemingly effortless ability to evoke countries and milieux far removed from the author's own. These have included eighteenth-century Germany, a Moscow print-works before the First World War and Florence in 1957. Here we are in turn-of-the-century New Zealand, where the immigrant Tanners have set up house in the outback, but it is not a historical story exactly, just as the novels aren't historical novels; Fitzgerald's characters, utterly realistic in their inconsistencies and lack of direction, live lives that are both immensely significant and at the same time utterly trivial. They come and go, mishear each other and speak at cross-purposes. Their habits, their clothes, their meals (the Tanners eat canned toheroas, fried eggs and jellied beetroot, tea and Bovo) are randomly but painstakingly noted, with the sudden lunges into focus of a home movie. In the three-dimensionality stakes, Fitzgerald is in a league of her own, closely followed by Kipling - whose late story, "Wireless", is almost a trompe l'oeil in its spellbinding description of a chemist's shop - and Rose Tremain, who made her short story debut in the 1980s with The Colonel's Daughter, and whose particular trick of mesmerizingly accurate surface observation has recently deepened into something emotively intricate.
"The Beauty of the Dawn Shift" is the story of Hector S, a disaffected East Berlin border guard and distant fictional relative of Goethe's Werther, who loses his bearings after the collapse of the Wall in 1989, and, driven by a pathetic totalitarian romanticism, decides "to ride east towards the Russian winter, towards the wilderness", and so to his death. Werther's suicidal obsession with Charlotte is paralleled by Hector's with his sister Ute, with whom he has been committing incest; this is a compassionate and sometimes unbearably moving evocation not just of the collapse of an ideology, but of the fatality lurking in all involuted ideals. The figure of the doomed outsider, one of the most enduring legacies of German Romanticism to other literatures, appears again in Woolf's "Solid Objects", in which a chance lump of glass picked up by a young man at the seaside sparks off an obsession with broken bric-a-brac that eventually consumes all his energies. By the end of the story, he has a house full of rubble and a life in ruins; but this, Woolf archly implies, is how all our lives inevitably end up. One might as well collect rubbish as do anything else. D. H. Lawrence's story about monomania, "The Man who Loved Islands", follows Woolf's, his heated effusiveness providing a neat foil to her cool economy. Whenever one reads Lawrence's late stories, one is struck anew by something infantile about him: his impatient egoism, his resentful dependency on other people, his habit of sprinkling his prose with exclamation marks, like a teenage girl; his hysterical hatreds, sudden enthusiasms and child-like interjections. But precisely because of this no other writer can equal his insight into the age-old human longing for self-sufficiency, constantly frustrated by neediness. The man who loved islands is Lawrence's alter ego, moving from island to ever tinier island, until he is separated from the human contact he fears and desires by an inflexible whim. Like all Lawrence, the story is immensely seductive in its courting of a physical landscape that promises, but finally withholds, satisfaction.
Byatt admits to a horror of "the besetting English vices of archness and whimsy", but supresses it, and rightly too, when it comes to Woolf and Lawrence. Contrarily, though, she has an unselfconscious English fondness for the first cousins of archness and whimsy, burlesque and slapstick. Slapstick is humour without humanity; it is physical comedy with a strain of cruelty, where the joke, such as it is, lies in the writer's thumping contempt for the physical. That is its raison d'etre. Graham Greene's "The Destructors", set in London after the Blitz, is a sophisticated form of it. A gang of slum boys, led by Trevor, a middle-class recruit desperate to be included, methodically gut the interior of the last inhabited house in a row designed by Wren. In his self-loathing, Trevor has singled out the house for vandalism precisely because of its beauty, which has somehow escaped the bombing, and which he alone can properly appreciate. The plot of the story is almost entirely concerned with the mechanics of destruction, the externalization of Trevor's precarious bid for membership of the group. At the end, the gang collapse the facade of the building, so that there is nothing left except a heap of rubble. The owner, an old man called Mr Thomas, appears just as a lorry driver witnessing the scene is convulsed with laughter. "How dare you laugh", Mr Thomas says. "It was my house. My house." Shocking? Yes. But the really appalling twist in the story's tail is this: by razing the Wren building, Trevor has effectively erased his past life and his otherness. The act of cruelty in this piece of slapstick has been self-directed. Byatt, inexplicably, finds it hilarious:
"it would take an English writer to end with the helpless laughter of the lorry driver at the destruction which the reader too cannot help admiring and laughing at." Actually, it would only take Greene - whose own self-disgust and lifelong, uneasy fascination with casual betrayal flash out here with ferocious intensity - to cook up this ending. Funny it isn't.
Burlesque, on the other hand, is kinder than slapstick. Nobody is better at it than P. G. Wodehouse, whose "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald" spoofs the conventions of romantic fiction, and quite possibly contains a sly dig at his countrymen's fastidiousness about sex. Archibald Mulliner has won Aurelia Cammarleigh with his bravura imitation of a hen laying an egg ("Love thrilled through every 'Brt-t't-t't' that he uttered, animated each flap of his arms"). Once everything is all settled and "hotsy-totsy", they plan their marital future. One cannot imagine a Russian, any Russian, writing this exchange:
"Suppose that aunt of yours wants to come and visit us when we are settled down in our little nest, what, dearest, would be your reaction to the scheme of socking her on the base of the skull with a stuffed eelskin?" "I should like it," said Aurelia warmly, "above all things."
"Twin souls," cried Archibald. "That's what we are, when you come right down to it. I suspected it all along, and now I know. Two jolly old twin souls."
A stuffed eelskin? The non-English reader might be forgiven a groan. Anthony Trollope makes great play with this sort of innuendo in his cautionary tale, "Relics of General Chasse". While visiting Belgium, the Rvd. Augustus Horne, a strapping Anglican prebendary, decides to pay a visit to the deserted rooms of the eponymous general, a hero of the siege of Antwerp. Once there, he stumbles across the general's breeches, and decides to try them on ("The general must have been a large man, George, or he would hardly have filled these"). Suddenly five Englishwomen appear, leaving Horne just enough time to dash for the dressing room, where Chasse's breeches fail to measure up (the general was not large enough). Meanwhile the ladies, in search of a souvenir, have seized Horne's own trousers and cut them up with a huge pair of scissors, leaving him unclothed and, symbolically castrated, in a state of "manly sorrow". You get the point. Either that phallic eelskin is a calculated slip, or Wodehouse is in deep trouble.
With gems like these, one hates to mention the casualties. Elizabeth Bowen is left out, presumably because she was Anglo-Irish. And no, Henry James and Conrad do not get in, although Byatt does not say whether this is due to an accident of birth, or because both were really practitioners of the novella rather than the short-story form. Other writers omitted either on critical grounds or because of lack of space include Elizabeth Gaskell, Walter de la Mare, Doris Lessing (all too long), and E. M. Forster (too whimsical).
Byatt balked at including Forster's paean to the instinctive life, "The Story of a Panic", in which the Great God Pan, still alive and well whatever Plutarch may say, is summoned to a Ravellan hill by a party of English sightseers, with shattering consequences. Yet why include Mew's rather heavy-footed story about the survival of paganism in Catholic Europe and exclude Forster's, which is incomparably lighter in touch? If "The Story of a Panic" is already too much anthologized, then either "The Siren" or "The Road from Colonus", two poignant investigations of the Forsterian themes of salvation and brotherhood, would have been welcome.
Instead of the above, we get: "A Widow's Quilt", a well-made but unspectacular piece by Sylvia Townsend Warner about a worn-out marriage; Leonora Carrington's tediously unpredictable surreal fantasy, "My Flannel Knickers"; J. G. Ballard's futuristic updating of The Tempest, "Dream Cargoes"; and "A Dream of Winter", a portentously grim piece by Rosamond Lehmann about country life in Oxfordshire during the Second World War. These are all clever stories, but calculatedly so. Their manipulations are obvious, compared with the waspish inflections of genuinely odd voices such as John Fuller's (in "Telephone" and "My Story"), Aldous Huxley's ("Nuns at Luncheon"), Evelyn Waugh's ("An Englishman's Home") and Saki's ("The Toys of Peace"). Where the anthology succeeds splendidly is in its contrasts, confidently interleaving examples from the hard-knocks school of social realism (Mary Mann, Arthur Morrison, Alan Sillitoe, A. E. Coppard) with what Byatt elegantly calls a "nuanced prose of feeling", exemplified by Malachi Whitaker, V. S. Pritchett, Elizabeth Taylor and H. E. Bates. In the same way, a locationless story by Philip Hensher parodying the miasmic indirections of much post-modern fiction is closely preceded by Angela Carter's sharply flavoured fairy-tale, "The Kiss", set in Samarkand, "an authentically fabulous city". Lessing has a fierce, inhuman quality which would certainly have fitted in very well with Greene. And yet, when looking again at Lessing's peculiarly flat, dissociated style - the voice of a peremptory anthropologist taking notes on a silly and irritating species - I can't help feeling, dear Reader, that we have got off lightly. When reading a short story, you do not want to feel silly, or like a member of an irritating species. You want to feel scooped out, celebrated, regretted, satirized, even burlesqued - but not dismissed. Whimsy begins to seem endearingly close to self-knowledge, humility even, in a writer. When this collection achieves classic status and runs to its next edition, as it surely will, I hope that Byatt will put Forster in.